Fix Your Duck Walk Before It Injures You

Walking and running with your feet turned out can lead to back and knee pain. Credit: Yellow Huang / Getty Images

Has anyone every told you that you walk like a duck, your feet pointing out instead of straight on? Maybe it’s the way you’ve always walked or maybe it’s a newly acquired gait, but regardless, it can lead to nagging injuries — chronic back and knee pain, shin splints, and bunions.

The good news is that a duck walk is mainly caused by body imbalances that you can correct. When examining someone with a toe pointing out, I often find that the source of the problem isn’t in the feet, but further up the kinetic chain, in the hips. Here, poor posture and excessive sitting often create an anterior pelvic tilt, or a pelvis that’s tipped forward. An anteriorly tilted pelvis prevents your glutes and abdominals from working correctly, and it forces the muscles on the inside of your hip bones, the external rotators, to pick up the slack. When those overworked muscles get too tight, they start to pull your femur outward, and as a result your feet turn out.

To test if your hips are the problem, lie face-up on your back with your legs straight. Look at your knees. If your knees are turned out along with your feet, then you know your hips are to blame. If your knees are straight and centered, but your feet still turn out, the issue is in your lower legs. A tight anterior tibialis (your outer shin muscle) can pull your shin bone out of alignment, which in turn pulls your knee out of place, forcing your toe out.

Naturally, imbalances like these increase your risk of injury. But your performance in the activities you love can also be affected. If you’re a runner, for example, your turned-out toes prevent you from pushing off as strongly as you could. You’re also not getting any help from your glutes, abs, or calves, which can slow your pace and power. Correct your toe turnout and turn those muscles back on, and you should be able to increase your distance, time, and feel like you have more energy during a run.

So let’s get to work to get you walking like a man instead of a duck. Start by foam rolling your legs and hips to release the tight muscles that are pulling you out of alignment. After that, retrain and strengthen the muscles that haven't been working. If your hips are to blame, follow the prescribed exercises listed here. If your lower leg is turning your foot out, follow the moves below:

Shin Release

  • Find a stable, firm surface roughly knee height.
  • Place a lacrosse ball on the surface, and kneel into it, the front of the shin (muscle only) on the ball.
  • Roll the ball up and down the muscle until the discomfort in that area decreases.
  • Move ball around to multiple sore spots along the muscle to target entire muscle.
  • Perform on each leg for two minutes.

Nose Toward Wall

  • Stand on one foot about 12 inches away, and facing a wall, your other foot down behind you with toes just touching floor. Your front leg should be straight, knee soft.
  • Keeping your back straight, shift your weight forward from your heel to your toe so your body tilts toward the wall (you won’t tilt so far forward that your nose actually touches). Repeat for three sets of 15 reps on each leg.
  • If this is too challenging, stand on both feet.

Single-Leg Deadlift

  • Stand on one foot, other foot down behind you with toes just touching floor. Your front knee should be slightly bent throughout the exercise.
  • Keeping your back flat, hinge forward from the hips, until your back is parallel with the floor. Push through your standing leg heel to return to start. Repeat for three sets of 15 reps on each leg.

Stability Ball Calf Raises

  • Stand with chest against a stability ball that’s placed against a wall at chest height; rise up onto toes.
  • Shift weight all to one foot, and pick up the other foot so it’s resting against the back calf of the working leg.
  • Slightly bend the knee of your working leg, and rise up onto your toes; come all the way down so your heel touches the floor.
  • Repeat the motion with your working leg completely straight. Then repeat again with your foot turned outward. The entire series is one rep. Do three sets of 15 reps on each leg.
  • If this is too difficult, perform with both feet on the ground.