To the uninitiated, race walkers are waddling, wiggling eccentrics who careen around on strangely stiff legs. To those who appreciate and understand the sport, race walkers are remarkably fleet-footed athletes.
Walking is the number one physical activity in the nation, with more than 81 million dedicated fans. The sheer number of walkers has lead to the development of many different walking styles ranging from simple strolling and fitness walking to daily power walking and, of course, competitive race walking.
While most types of walking simply require doing your regular walk at a faster pace or across challenging terrain, race walking demands an altogether different approach. Think of race walking as the waltz of walking; the technique is based on controlled, precise movements. Indeed, the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) has established specific rules:
"Race walking is a progression of steps so taken that the walker makes contact with the ground so that no visible (to the human eye) loss of contact occurs. The advancing leg must be straightened (i.e., not bent at the knee) from the moment of the first contact with the ground until in the vertical position. Disqualification for failure to adhere to the above definition is governed by Rule 39"
Simply put, you must roll the entire length of your foot over the ground. This low impact movement makes race walking safe, smooth, rhythmic and graceful (yes, graceful).
The benefits of race walking are many: Improve cardiovascular conditioning, improve muscle tone by exercising more major muscle groups, strengthen bones, build upper body strength, burn more calories, and improve flexibility and agility.
Race walking is a wonderful way to enjoy the benefits of running without the potentially harmful pounding on your body, and a significant number of people take up the sport after being injured from running. Most folks race walk for the same reasons they choose other forms of exercise: to get fitter or faster, to lose weight, to try something new, to have fun or to win.
Olympic athletes first put the sport to the test in the 1906 "Interim" Olympic Games in Athens and added it to the 1908 Games in London. (Then, only men were allowed to compete.) More than 80 years later, at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, women were allowed to race walk too.
I asked a few people why they race walk.
Ian Whately (4 times in the US Olympic trials, multiple times on the US track and field team), on why he race walks:
"It takes six weeks to learn to race walk within the rules and with 90 percent efficient form. It takes six years to get another 5 percent improvement in efficiency. It takes another 60 years to get the final 5 percent improvement. I am into my last sixty years of race walking -- kind of a path of enlightenment journey of a lifetime to find the nirvana of perfect form: No wasted energy, elegant to watch, so smooth that it feels as if you are weightless.
"But race walking is not just an internal satisfaction from trying to achieve the almost impossible; it is a healthy way of life. You eat right, get enough sleep, exercise regularly, balance the needs for aerobic, strength and flexibility exercises, reduce stress, and gain a good perspective on how petty many of your daily hassles really are.
"Walking can be so simple -- just go out and cover a few miles for your health. Yet like so many things, this apparently simple challenge can have almost infinite depth and complexity. There lies the fascination."
Anne Whittaker, a 61-year-old, nationally ranked Master's race walker from Portland, Ore., loves every aspect of her sport.
"Race walking is beautiful...it's fluid, graceful, physically intense and challenging," she says. It raises my spirits. It gives me a chance to exercise my previously latent sense of competition. It enables me to challenge myself on several levels." Ultimately, Whittaker is drawn to race walking because of the simple joy of "moving gracefully and staying fit."Fellow Portland race walker Marie VerMeer, 40, shares Whittaker's enthusiasm.
"Race walking is a sport I can do, and do well," she says, noting that she quickly picked up race walking even though she's not naturally athletic. "It has truly changed my perception of myself. I am now an "athlete." That's a term I never would have applied to myself before. Now I am passionate about race walking."
The sport has allowed Kelly Murphey-Glenn, 41, of Kuna, Ida., to lose weight and keep the extra pounds off. At the same time, she has become one of the nation's top female race walkers.
Go on. Take the next step...Who knows where it will take you?
Judy Heller is a well-known fitness and walking coach and a master race walker. A published author, speaker, professional coach, instructor and trainer with a clinical background, Heller is dedicated to helping provide opportunities for people to reach their fitness and lifestyle goals. For more information about race walking and walking training programs, checkout EroFit.com.