When you think of race walking, a lady wearing a jogging suit — complete with visor and fanny pack — walking briskly through your neighborhood holding hand weights may come to mind. This is far from the actual sport, which, in its current iteration, has been part of the Summer Olympics since the 1932 Games in Los Angeles.
“While it may look silly to the uninformed,” admits Jeff Salvage, former international competitor, founder of RaceWalk.com and author of “Race Walk Like A Champion,” “it is actually much better for your body than running, giving you all the [same] benefits, without as high of an injury risk.”
If you’re looking for a new challenge, we’ve rounded up this guide to race walking, detailed common misconceptions and outlined why you should give it a try.
When you hear the term race walking, you may be inclined to think it simply means you walk normally through any race, however, that is far from the truth. Though distances can vary depending on your level, in the Olympics there is a 20K race for men and women and a 50K for men only.
“Race walking is a fun and challenging event for athletes of all ages and abilities,” shares Michael Roth, head coach of Raleigh Walkers and a three-time national champion race walker. “There are tremendous opportunities for competition at local, regional, national and international levels and athletes can even earn college athletic scholarships for doing it.”
Roth admits that if you have Olympic aspirations in the sport, and are not at an elite level by the age of 22, you will be well behind the rest of the pack. However, this shouldn’t deter you from the sport. Salvage adds that many athletes who are injured in other sports and can no longer compete can find a new sport in race walking, mainly due to its low-impact nature.
Should you have dreams of competing at an All-American level or becoming a part of Team USA, Roth notes that there are currently 12 medals available in the world championships and nine in the Olympics — ”if you are willing to do the work.”
The biggest component of that work is getting down the technique and understanding how race walking differs from the walking you do everyday.
To be a successful race walker you have to know the correct form; especially because it is the key rule you must follow during races. As USA Track & Field notes, judges are on course evaluating the technique of race walkers. If done improperly, you may receive a foul or rule violation and can even be disqualified. So, practicing your form and stride is key.
“To race walk properly, athletes need to keep one foot on the ground [at all times] and also straighten their leg at the knee from when the foot makes contact with the ground until it passes under the hips,” explains Roth. “Ideally, you want your foot to land very close to your body and have the toes up (or ankle flexed), as this will allow your knee to lock itself naturally and make your stride smoother and natural.”
As Roth notes, the main difference from ‘normal’ walking is having to straighten your knee. Once you get the basic technique, you’ll learn to roll from heel to toe and pick up your pace.
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Additionally, race walkers foot placement is quite different than our everyday gait. In his Quick Guide to Race Walking, Salvage highlights the efficiency of a race walker’s hips, describing how their “feet land in almost an exact straight line.” Though a lot of importance is put on the positioning of the feet and legs, the hips are actually the main source of momentum for an elite race walker. The arms and shoulders are involved, too, though they do not swing or provide as much power as they would for a runner.
When it comes to preparing to race walk, training plans look very familiar if you have ever trained to run a race; race walkers train like runners do.
“All of the same distance and speed workouts, along with strength and flexibility training are used,” reveals Roth. “The only differences are that the workouts are done race walking instead of running and that those workouts take about 25% longer to cover the same distances, meaning we put in many more hours than runners do.”
You should still be prepared to do specific workouts like intervals and even long walks, so you can gain speed and build endurance just as you would if you were training to run a race. Additionally, cross-training and rest days allow you to avoid overuse injuries and build general strength in order to stay healthy and become a well-rounded athlete.