Did you know that race walking is an Olympic sport (since 1904!)? There are also race walking competitions at the Pan Am Games, IAFF Athletic World Championships, Commonwealth Games, USA Outdoor Championships and even a World Cup. It’s a track & field event in the NAIA college division in the U.S.
Race walkers from Russia, China and Europe have claimed the most Olympic medals, but the sport still has active participants in the United States as well. It tends to attract injured or aging runners, experienced runners who want to get faster, fitness walkers and sedentary people who are starting an exercise routine. To get some additional information you should read this.
Whether people race walk to stay in shape or to compete, all benefit because the sport builds cardiovascular endurance and is weight-bearing, without the repetitive high-impact nature – and risk of injury – of running. Runners hit the ground with approximately four times their body weight, while race walkers only generate about 1.4 times their body weight in impact per step. Still, due to its repetitive nature, race walking potentially may lead to IT band injuries and shin splints.
With races typically of 20K or 50K, race walking is not as easy as some might suggest. It differs from running in that one foot must remain in contact at all times with the ground; and to be competitive, racewalkers must achieve high cadence rates.
Starting race walking at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Katie Smith is a two-time All-American race walker and now a champion at nationals. She points out, “There is a lot more to think about when you are race walking than running.”
How to Race Walk
In race walking, two rules exist: the athlete’s back toe cannot leave the ground until the heel of the front foot has touched; in other words, there can be no loss of contact. And the supporting leg must straighten from the point of contact with the ground and remain straightened until the body passes directly over it. In competition, these rules are enforced by judges, who can only use their eyes – and not any technology – to evaluate race walkers and issue fouls.
Race walkers pump their arms by their hips and draw the shoulders down to stay low to the ground and maintain contact. They move the pelvis forward for propulsion, and take short, quick strides, with rapid turnover to keep the feet on the ground. Champion race walkers can cover one kilometer in four to five minutes.
Race walking technique is very specific and takes time to master. It’s much more difficult to learn online or via video, as you most likely can’t realistically assess your form. Instead, it’s better to work with a race walking coach or competitor to ensure that you learn proper technique and don’t adopt bad habits.
Smith says that anyone can race walk, noting, “To be a good race walker takes dedication, as race walking requires a certain technique. The more you perfect the technique, the more you can increase your speed and stay legal in races.”
Here are a few basic tips on correct race walking technique:
- Don’t focus on speed at first; instead, concentrate on perfecting technique.
- Place one foot in front of the other following a straight line (as if you are walking on a tight rope).
- Gently strike the heel of your leading leg when your foot is at a 45-degree angle; don’t slap the foot down. Then roll through the mid-foot to the big toe.
- Keep your knees low to the ground and minimize the lift of the feet so that they come up only an inch or two.
- Hold your rear foot on the ground as long as possible for a more efficient stride. Then actively push off with the toe.
- Keep strides short and don’t overstride with the leg far out in front of the body, as this stresses to the knees.
- Push the hips forward – not laterally – to add propulsion.
- Bend elbows at 90 degrees and swing from just behind the hip to chest height, like you’re shaking someone’s hand – front to back, and not side to side or across the body. Hands should be loose, and shoulders down and relaxed.
- Keep the posture upright, with the torso tall over the hips and not leaning forward or back.
- As you master race walking, your movements should be smooth and fluid, and not jerky.
Training for Race Walking
Race walkers obviously must practice their sport often, incorporating shorter and longer distances, intervals, speed work and strength training. Every coach’s specific recommendations may be somewhat different, according to personal preferences and your goals, but some common principles cover every regimen for novices.
Warm-up – Walk easily, do arm swings, gentle trunk rotation, ankle circles, lower back flexion and extension, rock the hips forward and back.
Cooldown – Stretch all the major muscle groups, including hamstrings, quadriceps, glutes, hip flexors, abductors, calves, shins, lower back, groin and shoulders. This will help loosen muscles, improve your range of motion and reduce tension.
- Base building – Beginners should start with a few miles, gradually build and vary distance over a month or two to improve their stamina and tolerance. Shorter and slightly longer distances should be intermixed, being careful not to do too much too soon.
- Interval workouts – These build endurance and get you closer to your ultimate race pace. Tempo training is covering shorter distances at your race pace. With interval training, you warm up and then alternate slower and faster paces, choosing to cover a specific distance or time period in each segment. Over time, you should be able to lengthen the work interval and shorten the recovery period. Ratios of work to recovery vary, but include 1:1, 1:2, 2:1 and so on.
- Cross training – The bulk of your regimen should be race walking, but some variety can add interest and reduce the risk of injuries. This means you periodically can run, hike, use the elliptical, cycle or swim, for instance, to continue to build cardio endurance while changing the stresses on your body.
- Strength training – This is helpful in overall conditioning and maintaining proper form when racewalking. Race walking not only requires leg strength, but strength in the hips and core, as well as the upper body, to propel you forward quickly.
Perform a muscular endurance routine ideally two to three times weekly, with one to three sets of 12-15 repetitions using free weights, machines or resistance bands. Do exercises for all the major muscle groups (don’t skip the legs!), including hamstrings, quadriceps, glutes, abductors, core, chest, back, shoulders, biceps and triceps.
General information about race walking can be found online, with a variety of sites providing training programs and coaching, along with various other resources. Those interested in trying the sport should look at their state’s USA Track & Field Association’s webpage to find out about local clubs and races. USA Track & Field also has a racewalking page that lists all championship races. And various race walking groups have pages and groups on Facebook.
You don’t have to be a competitive racer. Just put one foot in front of the other!