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How to Racewalk


Racewalking involves a higher rate of muscle activity than jogging.
Racewalking involves a higher rate of muscle activity than jogging.
©2007 Photodisc

If you're tired of freestyle walking programs, you may be interested in accelerating your program by learning how to racewalk. Perhaps you want more of an aerobic workout. Or you want to pick up speed. Or maybe you're craving competition. If so, learning to racewalk may be a natural next step for you.

By using the technique of racewalking, you'll be able to move faster and raise your heart rate well into the target range, even if you are already quite fit.

Racewalking can maximize your walking workout. Here's why: At racewalking speeds of five miles per hour or more, it is actually more efficient for your body to jog than to walk.

You can experience this for yourself. Try walking as fast as you can, and you'll feel your body aching to jog. In order to continue walking and not break into a jog, you have to keep one foot on the ground at all times. You can't use that gliding motion -- when both feet are off the ground -- that allows joggers to cover more distance with each step. So in order to cover the same distance, you have to take more steps than you would if you were jogging.

This article describes the advantages of racewalking, proper racewalking form, and more. Get started by learning more about the benefits of racewalking in the next section.

To learn more about walking, see:

The Advantages of Racewalking

There are many advantages of racewalking for fitness. At high speeds, racewalking actually involves a higher rate of muscle activity and burns more calories per mile than does jogging at the same pace. According to James Rippe, M.D., of the University of Massachusetts, racewalking burns 120 to 130 calories per mile -- that's more than running (which burns between 100 and 110) and certainly more than freestyle walking.

Racewalking also gives your upper body a healthy workout. In order to walk at high speeds, you have to pump your arms vigorously. This movement helps tone and strengthen the muscles in your arms, neck, and chest as it burns calories.

All this extra activity shows up in increased health and fitness benefits. Indeed, elite competitive racewalkers have physiological profiles that are comparable to those of distance runners. They have low body fat and a high ratio of "good" to "bad" cholesterol, according to a study conducted at Wayne State University in Detroit.

Another advantage of racewalking is that it can be practiced as a competitive sport, and it's an excellent way to add challenge to your walking program. It can be practiced and enjoyed in or out of competition. (Try doing a Web search to find the racewalking club nearest you.)

Racewalking does put greater stress on the ankle, knee, and hip joints than does freestyle walking, however. (Whenever you increase the intensity of an exercise, you increase the risk of injury.) But the strain is less than that caused by jogging, because you always have one foot on the ground when you racewalk.

You can lower your risk of injury by beginning your program slowly and increasing your speed gradually; by doing plenty of stretches and allowing your body to warm up before you begin each walk; and by following proper racewalking form. For detailed information on the correct form, continue to the next section.

To learn more about walking, see:

The Racewalking Form

You've probably seen proper racewalking form somewhere. You may have seen racewalkers on television or watched them "wiggle" past you in the local park. You may have wondered about their unusual technique -- vigorously pumping arms and exaggerated hip action. Some people find it comical, but racewalkers know that it's this unique form that allows them to reach high walking speeds.

Racewalkers generally walk at speeds ranging from about five miles per hour to about nine miles per hour (walking at speeds of five miles per hour or more without using the racewalking technique is very difficult, if not impossible, for most people). Record-setting elite racewalkers, however, have achieved astounding speeds nearing ten-and-one-half miles per hour.

As you begin to racewalk, however, it is important to concentrate more on the proper form, which is no cinch to master, than on speed. Speed will come later, as you master the racewalking technique.

There are three main features of racewalking form; they're in the official rules that govern the sport. Those rules, according to the International Amateur Athletic Federation, state that:

  1. One foot must be in contact with the ground at all times.
  2. There must be a two-leg support period during each cycle of pushing off, swinging, and weight acceptance.
  3. The weight-supporting leg must be straight for at least one moment when it's in the vertically upright position.

In other words, in racewalking, you must have one foot touching the ground at all times. The heel of your front foot must touch the ground before the toes of your back foot leave the ground. And, during your stride, the leg that is supporting your weight must be straight for at least a moment as your torso passes directly over it.

As you incorporate all of these movements into your form, you probably will be walking at a fairly slow pace. That's fine for this stage. Just walk at a pace that's comfortable and focus on your form. Once you feel comfortable with these movements, you can begin to increase your speed and raise your heart rate into your target zone. Be sure, however, to increase your speed gradually. Don't push too hard or walk to the point of exhaustion.

In the next section, we'll continue our racewalking discussion with tips on how to adopt the proper form.

To learn more about walking, see:

Adopting Proper Racewalking Form

Are you interested in learning to racewalk and maximizing your walking workout? Follow these steps and adopt the proper racewalking form:

  • Step 1: As the body passes over the torso, the supporting leg is straight in the upright position. The opposite leg is moving forward, with the foot close to the ground. The arm is bent at a 90 degree angle.
  • Step 2: The supporting leg is beginning to push the body ahead, causing the body to lean forward slightly. The opposite hip and leg are swinging forward, with the foot close to the ground. The arm above the supporting leg is beginning its upward thrust.
  • Step 3: The supporting leg is exerting a strong push as the body leans forward. The opposite hip and leg are reaching forward. The arm above the supporting leg is pumping across the chest as the opposite arm pumps back.
  • Step 4: In this final step, the supporting leg continues to push the body forward as the heel of the opposite foot touches the ground. Note that the foot of the supporting leg is still in contact with the ground as the back of the opposite heel makes contact. The arms are at the high point of their pumping motion.

How do you adjust your form to incorporate these features? Stand straight, with your toes aimed dead ahead. Begin walking by stepping forward with your left hip, your left knee, and your left heel. Be sure you land first on the back edge of your heel. Your left foot should be at a 90 degree angle to your left leg (your leg and foot should form the shape of a capital "L"), and your heel should be at about a 40 degree angle to the ground.

When the back edge of your heel strikes, tilt your foot ever-so-slightly toward the outer edge of your shoe; you'll be rolling on the outer edge of your foot as you shift your weight from the back to the front of your foot. This will keep your knee from rotating inward, which can cause "runner's knee."

As your left leg lands and begins to pull you forward, give yourself a strong pushoff with your right foot. As your right foot leaves the ground and begins to swing forward, your torso will pass directly over your left leg. At that moment, your left leg must be straight. Once your torso has passed directly over your left leg, your left leg will push you forward until the back of your right heel strikes the ground.

You should keep a few things in mind as you practice this technique. First, be sure to keep your toes pointing straight ahead as you walk. If you don't, you'll be moving from side to side as well as forward, wasting energy and losing speed.

Second, pay attention to foot placement. In freestyle walking, your feet land about shoulder-width apart (in the side-to-side direction). In racewalking, your feet should line up one behind the other.

To practice this, try walking an imaginary straight line (or draw a straight line on the pavement with chalk). As you extend each leg forward, try to plant it on the line, or as close to the line as possible. This will keep you from waddling and give you a smooth, efficient stride.

Third, when your supporting leg is straight, the hip above it should rise and relax. This will let the bones of the leg support the weight and give the muscles a break. This hip movement can be somewhat hard to achieve at first, particularly for men who are "trained" to believe that mobile hips are feminine-looking. But the hip movement is crucial to the racewalker, because it makes the stride as smooth as possible. Also, as you swing the nonsupporting leg forward, be sure to swing the hip above it forward, too.

Finally, as you walk, you should feel yourself leaning forward from the ankles. Don't bend forward at the waist, however. This will strain your back and neck and could hamper your breathing.

In addition to using your legs and hips correctly, you need to get your arms in on the act. As in freestyle walking, your arms will naturally swing to counterbalance your legs. But if you consciously and vigorously pump your arms, you can actually help your legs move faster.

To get the most benefit, keep your arms bent at right angles. Pump your arms diagonally across the center of your body, keeping your elbows close to your sides. Don't pump your arms too high, however -- chest-high is enough.

By using proper form when you racewalk, you avoid the risk of injury. Stretching is equally important. The next section has important stretching and other safety tips.

To learn more about walking, see:

Racewalking Safety

Always keep safety in mind when racewalking. Before you begin each workout, even when you're just practicing your form, you need to warm up your body and stretch your muscles. The same is true after each workout. If you neglect these important steps, you may be in for some serious muscle pain and perhaps even injury.

Before you begin your racewalking workout, walk slowly and casually (not in racewalking form) for a few minutes to warm up your muscles. Then stop and stretch. Stretches that involve the upper and lower body are important, because so many of the body's muscles are involved in racewalking.

Stretch your muscles gently, without bouncing or pulling to the point of pain. Once you've completed your walk, stretch again to help maintain your flexibility.

Even with proper stretching, you may feel some soreness early in the program. That's to be expected, since you may not have used some of those muscles in a while. Don't walk to the point of pain, however. If pain or discomfort persists, see your doctor.

Since racewalking is such a specialized activity, and so distinct from freestyle walking and jogging, shoes have been designed specifically for the sport.

Entering Competition

A large number of local, national, and international racewalking competitions are held each year, covering distances from 1 mile to 31 miles (50 kilometers). These events allow you the opportunity to test out your speed and your form.

You could, of course, enter running races or marathons and racewalk your way through. This way, you wouldn't be judged on technique, but you would still be competing. As you increase your speed and skill, you may even find yourself passing some of the runners, especially in longer events.

Whichever type of competition you choose, it's best to begin with shorter, slower races. Stay away from very short sprinting races, however; you might be tempted to push yourself too hard too soon. You may want to try a more moderately paced four-mile event first. In order to progress to longer or faster races, you'll need to prepare yourself -- increasing your speed and distance gradually in your training sessions.

Before you begin entering races, you may want to attend a racewalking event as a spectator. By watching the competitors, you may be able to pick up tips for perfecting your form. You may also get the opportunity to ask the racers (or even the judges) for advice on proper racewalking form.

Whatever your racewalking goals may be, take advantage of the tips presented in this article to guide your fitness plan.

To learn more about walking, see:

ADDITIONAL CREDITS:

Peggy Norwood Keating, MA, Contributing consultant

Rebecca Hughes, Contributing writer