Racewalking for runners, part two: technique

Technique is everything.  Credit: Andy Lyons/Allsport
Recently I wrote about the benefits of racewalking as a cross-training exercise for runners. Perhaps I've managed to convince you that the improved coordination, full-body strengthening and lower-impact cross-training effects that racewalking will offer you can indeed help your running.

But now what? How do you go from considering adding racewalking to your running program to actually doing it? Well, the first step is learning exactly what racewalking is.

When racewalking first appeared in the Olympics in 1908 it really was nothing more than fast walking. But if youve ever tried fitness walking for speed, youve probably discovered that theres a rather low threshold of pace beyond which technique can become extremely awkward — so much so that most people cant walk any faster than about a 12-minute mile, no matter how hard they try.

But racewalking is a different animal. It has evolved over the years from mere fast walking to become a speedy, fluid athletic event. Elite racewalkers can walk a 5K in under 20 minutes, and a marathon in just over 3 hours.

The rules that prevent racewalkers from running are actually part of the reason why the technique is so efficient — and so much easier on the body than running.

The first rule says that racewalkers must keep one foot on the ground at all times. Occasionally, an athlete may come off the ground a bit with each stride, but not so much that it can be detected by the human eye, since judges are placed all along the course to watch for infractions.

Because racewalkers stay so low to the ground, theyre much less likely to suffer the high-impact injuries that befall so many runners.

The other rule says that walkers must keep their knees straight from the moment the heel of the advancing leg hits the ground until that leg passes directly under the body. That may sound a little strange, but the straight leg not only provides the leverage that propels racewalkers forward so quickly, but also keeps the knee safe from many of the torsional injuries that runners commonly suffer.

To get an idea of what racewalking feels like, simply stand in place with your feet together and your arms held by your sides with the elbows bent at 90 degrees. Now pump your knees forward and back while keeping your feet flat on the ground, with your weight on your heels. Each time you pull your knee back, your leg will straighten under your body just as it will when youre racewalking.

Now all you need to do is add some stride length by stepping forward a bit with either foot each time you pump your knees. Just be sure to land on your heels, otherwise your knees will probably bend when your foot hits the ground.

Concentrate on taking short, quick steps, rather than long, slow strides. If you do that, youll have an easier time keeping your knees straight, and youll expend much less energy.

As you get stronger, your stride should get longer — but make sure the extra stride length is behind your body; keep it short in front.

Most people can pick up the technique the way I just outlined it, but if you feel that youre not getting the hang of the straight knee, you may have to try "Frankenstein walking" until you get your knees sorted out.

Start out by walking on your heels with your toes held up. Take short steps and maintain good posture. After you get the hang of that, allow your foot to flatten out as your body passes over it, but keep your legs stiff; continue landing on the heels, and keep your weight on your heels throughout the stride.

Now just take quicker and quicker steps. Your knees will start to bend as you step forward, but thats OK. Just make sure you keep landing on your heels so the knee stays straight on the way back.

Once youve got the feel of walking with your knees straight with the Frankenstein walk, you can gradually make it feel more like racewalking by bending the advancing knee more and more as it drives forward.

Doing either the knee pumps or the Frankenstein walk on a very gradual (3 to 5 percent) hill will make it even easier to pick up the technique. And once you have it, you can get faster by pumping your arms and driving your knees more vigorously to give yourself a longer, more powerful stride. Try it!

Next time Ill talk about adding racewalking to your running training program.

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