Racewalking's not just for the pros

It's a breezy, sunny, early summer day. I'm walking along the Charles River in Boston and men can't keep their eyes off me. Alas, they're not looking at me like they'd like to ask me out for coffee; they're looking at me like I've escaped from some sort of home.

My arms are bent at a 90-degree angle, my chest is forward, my hips are swiveling like a corkscrew, my arms are pumping, and my forehead is oozing sweat. I'm racewalking, and despite the odd looks, I'm loving it. And no one is more surprised than me.

I didn't exactly want to try racewalking. It was more of a what-have-I-got-to-lose situation. I've been an avid walker for about six years. And while I love the effect a long walk has on my psyche, I had to admit that lately, it just wasn't doing it for me in the heart-pumping, cheek-flushing, mind-challenging department (it wasnt doing much for me in the butt department, either).

And so I've been hopping from one aerobics class to another in search of a workout that makes me feel like I did when I started walking: exhilarated, energetic and totally, unequivocally awesome. During that process I found and fell in love with kickboxing. But a girl can't plan her life around gym schedules, so I had to face facts: It was time to look into racewalking.

I didn't have to look far: I work with national racewalking team coach Mark Fenton, WALKING's editor at large. We agreed that three lessons would be enough for me to grasp the basics.

Lesson one

Before the first lesson, I suddenly decide I can't go it alone, so I coax my co-worker Alexandra Cann into joining us. I'm a little worried, since she's a much more accomplished athlete than I am, but looking weird is easier when you're doing it with someone else (even if that someone is going to outwalk you).

Mark, Alexandra, and I warm up by walking about a half-mile to the Charles River. So far, so good. To get us into the racewalking groove, Mark instructs us to break into a fast jog for about 30 yards. Then he signals us to immediately switch into a walk. The catch is, it has to be at the same speed we were jogging. Making the transition from long, loping strides to short, fast steps feels awkward initially, but after a few hybrid steps, my hips start to swivel, and my arms automatically start pumping. This sneaky maneuver gets us racewalking before we know what hits us. The point exactly.

We slow down and walk regularly for a while. Then we start jogging again. Mark signals and again we break into a racewalk. This time, he tells us to picture kids running by a pool: "When the lifeguard yells, 'Walk, don't run,' visualize how they break into a really fast, compact walk. Without realizing it, those kids are racewalking."

Going from a run to a racewalk makes it clear: Racewalking isn't really walking at all; it's more like straight-legged running, without the jarring sensation. As we racewalk another stretch, Alexandra the athlete begins to drop back. "Hey," I think, "Can I be getting this faster than she is?"

As we're walking slow circles around the river, Mark explains the basic concepts of racewalking: One foot must be on the ground at all times, and that leg must be straight. The heel should hit the ground and the toes should be up. The arms should swing in a compact arc. At the bottom of the arc, the thumbs should hit the waistband of your shorts; at the top, it should reach about chest height.

Oh yeah, and your hips need to swivel, but not in the exaggerated side-to-side swagger so many people think is racewalking. Instead, imagine that your hips are moving front to back (it feels like trying to walk fast in a tight skirt). Now I realize why he had us try it first. If we had tried to focus on all the components of racewalking, we wouldn't have gotten past the first step.

After a few stretches, we're done for the day. Mark gives us "homework," two practice sessions apiece. I nod enthusiastically, but secretly, I plot to racewalk under the cover of darkness. And therein lies the problem with racewalking. It's a terrific exercise that gives you the kick of a high-intensity workout, but it has a deep-seated image problem. So much so that Mark admits he's had things thrown at him while racewalking. Of course, he claims that's a rare occurrence. But still ...

The next day I feel every muscle in my legs: my hip flexors, my inner thighs, my hamstrings, glutes, shins and did I say inner thighs? Even my triceps are sore. I never knew walking could feel like this much of a workout. Maybe there's something to this after all.

Next: Warming up

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