Racewalking: The benefits of running without the pounding

Credit: Clive Brunskill/Allsport
You're out for your daily run, huffing and pounding your way to that physique of your dreams.

You are proud of those muscle-toned legs your hard work has produced.

Then you notice them. Others have stopped to stare. Their hips are swaying as gracefully as energetic dancers. Their bodies are muscular and their speeds impressive.

Yet they are reaping the benefits of running without lifting both feet off the ground. They are racewalking.

Keep in mind that simply walking quickly does not equate to racewalking. Powerwalkers, fitness walkers and speedwalkers all walk quickly, but never call racewalkers any of those. The difference, you see, is technique.

The first documented racewalkers, servants in late 16th-century England, used a "fair heel and toe" approach to keep cheering and betting noblemen happy.

Today, racewalkers follow two rules (both of which are elite standards, since racewalking is an Olympic sport): First, keep at least one foot in contact with the ground at all times, as visible to the naked eye. Second, keep your leg straight from the moment it hits the ground until it passes under your hip.

In a judged race, you can be disqualified if you violate the rules. Sounds easy, but it can work your abs and legs like nobody's business. But if you can walk, you can do it.

Not everyone who racewalks does it for the competition.

"I don't care about a trophy, because sometimes that just means people in my age group haven't shown up," laughs Ellen Miller, 52, who started racewalking in 1997. Miller averages a 13.5-minute mile on her weekly walks with The Walking Club of Georgia, which is sanctioned by USA Track and Field.

"I think exercise is boring, but racewalking is a good way to socialize, and you're getting your health benefits at the same time."

She cites a better resting heart rate, stronger cardiovascular ability and weight maintenance as personal benefits.

Health professionals agree that racewalking is great low-impact and cardiovascular exercise.

"If you have the joints to be able to jog, that's fine. But walking for an hour is better than jogging for 30 minutes," says John Lumpkin, director of Physical Therapy at Spine and Sport Physical Therapy of Woodstock.

"I used to be a runner, but now my knees are shot," Miller says. According to coaches, some runners add racewalking to their training to boost their speed.

Others racewalk to lose weight, but you should always remember three things before you start any weight-loss program.

"You must eat correctly and burn off more calories than you take in -- cardio is good for that," Lumpkin advises. "You should also work on muscle mass and do some form of strength training."

Experts say walking a 15-minute mile for an hour can burn anywhere between 360 to 420 calories. Racewalking burns even more since you exert more energy with the proper technique. Walking is also good exercise for elderly people.

"It's the best overall," Lumpkin says. "Walking is what I suggest for older people to combat osteoporosis and joint problems."

No matter your age, if you're looking for a different physical activity, consider racewalking. You may have to endure a little staring, but all you need to get started is to check with your doctor and then put one foot in front of the other.

Jill L. Cox is a freelance writer who teaches journalism and media studies at Kennesaw State University. She is also a fan of racewalking for exercise.

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