By Daniel G. Graetzer, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, School of Health Sciences
If walking does not provide the workout intensity you desire and the “jarring” of running keeps you on injured reserve, racewalking may be the outdoor workout for you this summer.
Competitive racewalkers officially are required follow two basic rules: They cannot lose contact with the ground (getting airborne for even a slight moment means you are running) and the supporting leg must be straight.
Straightening of the knees is what gives racewalkers their distinctive hip waggle with observers often thinking the hip waggle is forced – but, in fact, it is actually due to the racewalker attempting to keep the hip area as relaxed as possible.
When the supporting leg is under the body, the overall hip will raise slightly with the hip on the swinging leg side lower. This piston-like action makes the legs rotate (not just go up and down) with the resulting pelvis rotation increasing hip extension, which in turn increases stride length more than when walking.
In addition to the exaggerated straightening of the knee, another major difference between racewalking and normal walking is that the racewalker’s feet land in a straight line (similar to DUI testing), not landing side by side as in running. The racewalker’s arms are also bent, giving more power to the arm swing. Bending the elbow shortens the pendulum of the arms and allows them to swing quicker.
Because the arms and legs function more as a unit in racewalking, quicker arms mean quicker legs and consequently a quicker stride as compared to walking. The combination of increasing the stride length and rate allows most people to racewalk at a max speed of about 4.5 miles per hour. Generally speaking, only competitive racewalkers with very long legs can break the 5 mph barrier.
Enhancing Speed as a Racewalker
As with running, the best way to increase racewalking speed is to increase your cadence (take more steps per minute) rather than trying to increase stride length. The ideal running cadence is generally considered to be about 170-180 steps per minute, whereas racewalking cadence should be closer to 180 to 200 steps per minute, or faster.
Highly competitive racewalkers typically have a faster cadence. Beginners gradually increase their cadence during training as they master their racewalking technique and improve fitness and strength to support a faster stride.
Taller racewalkers with naturally long legs may also walk with a slightly slower cadence, but the takeaway is that you want to keep your steps as quick as possible and focus most on taking more steps per minute rather than increasing the length of your steps.
Racewalking competitions require one foot to be in contact with the ground at all times – with judges ensuring the rule is enforced. If there is no visible ground contact, a penalty is assessed for “lifting.”
The human eye can generally catch “liftings” slower than 0.6 seconds which enables even the fastest “lifter” to racewalk within the rules. That said – “You have to push the envelope; you want to be on the edge,” says Canadian Olympian racewalker Inaki Gomez.
Racewalkers Experience Fewer Injuries
A distinct advantage of racewalking workouts is reduced overall jarring of the body due to more forward movement (via less up and down movement). This results in fewer musculoskeletal injuries than running because force of impact with the ground is considerably lower.
Unlike runners – who spring off a bent knee into the air creating a landing force of 3 to 5 times body weight – a racewalker always maintains contact with the ground with the front leg landing creating a landing force of about 1.5 times body weight.
The same overuse injuries are typically seen in both racewalkers and runners such as tendinitis and stress fractures. In racewalking, injuries develop more slowly and tend to be less devastating.
Both racewalkers and runners whose feet pronate excessively are more likely to develop problems. Shin pain due to dorsiflexion – raising of toes upward (dorsally) toward the shin bone – at a heel angle of about 45 degrees upon contact with the ground is common in novice racewalkers until they develop proper technique.
A special racewalking shoe or light running shoe is recommended. Heavy running shoes with thick heel wedges should be avoided.
Women generally catch on easier to racewalking than men because they tend to move their hips more. Men generally have a more difficult time loosening up as their hamstrings are often too tight and/or quadriceps are not as relaxed as they could be. Excessive tightness has actually prevented some men from performing a stride that is legal for competition.
Here are some tips for those interested in starting racewalking:
1. Bend elbows to about 90 degrees. The arms should swing freely and cross just slightly in front of the body. During the backswing, the hands should not rise above the waistline.
2. The knee of the supporting leg should be straight, and the racewalker should never be airborne (official competition rules). If the hips remain “loose,” they will naturally shift over the straight leg and rotate from side to side, which increases stride length and allows foot placement in a straight line.
3. The feet should always land in a straight line (similar to DUI testing). With the toes slightly raised, the heel of leading foot is planted just slightly above the center of gravity of the body. As the back leg pushes off, the body weight moves forward over the supporting leg and the foot rolls forward. A heel-toe stride is employed with the toes pushing off at end of the stride.
4. The body should be tilted slightly forward at about 3 to 4 degrees in a straight line from head to toe.
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Practice Exercises for Racewalking
Like any sport or activity, it’s important to practice to perfect the techniques. Here is some advice on exercises to improve racewalking:
1. To get the feel of the unique racewalking hip motion and loosen the hips, stand in place with both knees straight. Bend one knee slightly and then the other. Alternate legs and allow the hips to adjust.
2. To practice placing feet in a straight line, walk the line at a lined track. To loosen the hips further, try crossing over the line with the right foot landing to the left of the line and the left foot landing to the right of the line.
3. To loosen shoulders and coordinate arm and leg movements, perform some shoulder rolls and backward windmills with the elbows bent.
4. When first starting, try alternating five-minute periods of walking, racewalking, and jogging. Gradually reduce time periods of walking and jogging until you are racewalking for your full workout. Keep in mind it generally takes about two to six weeks to master all racewalking techniques.
Origination and Olympics
Racewalking probably originated during the Victorian era (1837-1901) with noblemen who enjoyed placing bets on their footmen who were walking alongside their horse-driven coaches.
Racewalking has been an Olympic sport since 1904. The current Olympic racewalking record for the men’s 20k is 1:18:46, (9.46 mph, 15.23 kph) by Chen Ding and for the men’s 50k is 3:36:53 (8.59 mph, 13.82 kph) by Jared Tallent. The record for the Olympic women’s 20k racewalk is 1:25:16 (8.75 mph, 14.08 kph) by Qieyang Shinji.
The 50k (31-mile) racewalk will not return for the 2024 Paris Olympic Games because the International Olympic Committee (IOC) recently decided this event does not align with their stated mission of gender equality. It is currently the only event on the overall Olympic program that has no approximate equivalent for women.
Rather than add a women’s race, the IOC will introduce a currently unspecified mixed team racewalking event. The demise of the 50k event follows its 1932 introduction at the Los Angeles Games and has been held every Summer Olympics except during the 1976 Montreal Games. Other reasons for eliminating the 50k event is that it is too long for viewing by younger sports fans and it inaccurately appears as though racewalkers are simply jogging to television viewers, which does not accurately portray the extreme intensity of the sport.
Many sports and health science professionals highly recommend racewalking as a challenging, low-impact aerobic activity that has several advantages for chronically injured runners, overweight individuals, or persons who simply do not enjoy running but desire a more strenuous workout than normal walking.
About the Author
Daniel G. Graetzer, Ph.D., received his B.S. from Colorado State University/Fort Collins, a M.A. from the University of North Carolina/Chapel Hill and a Ph.D. from the University of Utah/Salt Lake City. He has been a faculty member in the School of Health Sciences, Department of Sports and Health Sciences, since 2015. As a regular columnist in social media blogs, encyclopedias, and popular magazines, Dr. Graetzer greatly enjoys helping bridge communication gaps between recent breakthroughs in practical application of developing scientific theories and societal well-being.