Racewalking for Beginners
Racewalking gives you a workout without the impact
Valia Vaitones, a USATF Junior Olympic racewalker, demonstrates proper racewalking form along the Windham Rail Trail in Windham.
Photo courtesy of Ed Vaitones
Racewalking. No doubt at some point you’ve seen people doing it — the swinging hips, the pumping arms and a hurried stride that suggests the walker is trying to get somewhere really fast — and have thought to yourself, “Gosh, why don’t they just run already?” Well, for many, racewalking is that great balance between walking and running, an amped-up form of exercise that delivers many of the benefits of running without all its pitfalls. Racewalking has its roots in pedestrianism, which was a 19th-century form of competitive walking and a popular spectator sport in Britain.
While running is a great workout, it can be tough on the body, particularly the knees and feet. Racewalking gives you the cardio benefits without the negative force of impact, and for folks who can walk without pain, but can’t run, this can be a very satisfying middle ground. That’s not to say it’s easy. The technique needs to be learned and doesn’t necessarily come naturally, so it may take some time before the walking feels comfortable. Those interested would do well to get a little beginner training under their belts through a local clinic so they learn to do it right and can continue to work on efficiency. As in running, registering for a race at least a few months out can be a good incentive to keep up those training and fitness goals, especially during the cooler months as our nature tends to turn us toward the indoors. For more info on how you can break into racewalking, check out newalkers.com to see what is available in your area.
The women’s racewalk only became an Olympic event in 1992 after years of lobbying. Manchester’s own Joanne Dow, who only began racewalking in ’94, holds multiple indoor and outdoor racewalking champion titles and was the 2008 Olympic trials champion.
Most racewalkers wear running shoes, but they need to be very flexible. Some racewalkers prefer racing flats or minimalist shoes that are lighter and have less cushioning than a standard running shoe. The Mizuno Wave Universe 3 ($79.99) is a popular shoe among race walkers. Combining both cushioning and stability, this shoe also features SmoothRide engineering, which “minimizes the rapid acceleration and deceleration of the foot during transition,” resulting in a smoother, glitch-free stride.
For autumn’s cooler weather, the Men’s Impulse Active Long-Sleeve Shirt by North Face ($60) makes a great racewalking companion. Featuring wicking Flash Dry fibers, this technical crewneck adds a little warmth, but remains breathable.
Your complete guide to all things racewalking. Designed with novices and advanced race walkers in mind, “Race Walk Like A Champion: Second Edition” ($17.59) provides the reader with techniques and training suited to each walker’s needs. A history of racewalking is also included.
Expert Advice with Jay Diener
Jay Diener lives in Hampton with his wife, and together they own Specialized Care Co., which produces and markets products for dentists who treat patients with special needs. He is the chairman of the Hampton Conservation Commission, president of the Great Bay Stewards and a founding member of the Seabrook-Hamptons Estuary Alliance. He’s also race director of the Great Bay 5K, co-director of the Seacoast Half Marathon, member of the Seacoast Road Race Series organizing committee and director of the Seacoast 3K & 5K judged racewalking races. He also enjoys biking, kayaking and cross-country skiing.
I don’t think the casual observer can really tell exactly what racewalking is, except that it’s fast but not quite running. Can you break it down into mechanics for us and explain what exactly the racewalker does?
There are two rules in racewalking. Briefly, the leading leg must be straight (no knee bend) from when it strikes the ground until it passes vertical, and one foot must be in contact with the ground at all times (based on what the naked eye can see). The mechanics of racewalking enable the racer to maximize their speed while adhering to these two rules. The stride in front is short, with the foot at a 45-degree angle — this makes it a lot easier to keep that straight leg. The stride in back is longer so the racer can push off with their toe to help bring that trailing leg forward faster. Racewalkers also rotate their hips because that helps their legs move faster and more efficiently. And racewalkers swing their arms more aggressively than runners because a strong and fast arm swing translates to stronger and faster leg movement.
Can high-mileage racewalkers succumb to the same kinds of injuries as runners who are putting in an equivalent workouts?
On national and international platforms, racewalkers regularly compete in 20K and 50K races. Racewalking is easier on the body than running: Runners hit the ground with the equivalent of five to seven times their body weight with each stride, while racewalkers hit with about two to three times their body weight. So the impacts to the feet, knees, hips, etc. are far less. However, racewalkers can still be subject to overuse and other training injuries.
How can people interested in racewalking get started?
Racewalking is a great sport; it can provide terrific workouts and fun competitions, but there can be a bit of a learning curve. It involves teaching one’s body to walk differently than most of us are used to, and to coordinate different movements of legs, hips and arms. Anybody at any age can learn to racewalk, but they should expect that it will take some practice. However, it is well worth the time and effort. We have free racewalking clinics and training sessions twice a month in Portsmouth that are open to new and experienced racewalkers. There is also the New England Walkers club in Boston that holds clinics and training sessions. It is helpful to read about racewalking and to view slow motion video of racewalkers (which can be found on YouTube). But nothing is as good as working with an experienced racewalker who can explain, demonstrate and teach the technique.