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Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2009 06:33 pm

Racewalking

The perfect sport for baby boomers

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Max Walker, winner of many national racewalking titles in distances up to 50K, exhibits superb racewalking technique.
PHOTO BY MIKE SMELTZER

If you are a baby boomer, you probably remember when joggers first appeared in the 1960s. They looked strange, bouncing down the street not going anywhere fast. But in a few years joggers were everywhere. The “tipping point” had been reached, and joggers no longer seemed odd.

Racewalking, which may look a bit strange to the unaccustomed eye, can be for aging baby boomers what jogging and running were for them in their younger years. It can open up a whole new era of fitness at a time when aging joints complain about most types of vigorous activity. An Olympic sport for 100 years, racewalking is incredibly aerobic yet kind to joints. Perhaps health-conscious baby boomers will take this sport to the tipping point, and, someday, racewalkers training in the park won’t draw a second glance.

Highly aerobic

Everyone knows regular aerobic exercise is essential for good cardiovascular health. Racewalking is definitely aerobic. According to Jeff Salvage, a former world-class racewalker and author on the subject, running uses 70 percent of the muscles in the body. Racewalking uses 95 percent.

Fifty-something William Riley, Jr. of Belleville is proof. “I’m at my highest fitness level ever,” he said. After a few years of racewalking his resting pulse is 46 to 50 beats per minute. He had to buy a new wardrobe for his trimmed-down physique.

Low impact

In running and jogging the joints take a pounding. Estimates put the force of a runner’s heel impact at three and one-half times body weight or more. A racewalker’s impact is estimated at just one and one-half times body weight.

Most running shoes have thick heels to absorb the shock, while racewalkers use shoes with thinner heels. The protection isn’t needed, and lower heels help with racewalking technique. A study of 400 racewalkers indicated one injury, including even minor injuries, every 6.4 years of participation in the sport. A dozen studies of runners indicated injuries every one and one-half to four years.

Like many racewalkers, Charles Williams of Atlanta, Ga., got into the sport because of injuries he received while running.

“I’m trying to get older runners to switch over to racewalking before they disintegrate,” he said. “I tend to pass my old teammates on half marathons these days,” the septuagenarian added.

Fitness or competition

Many racewalkers pursue the sport for fitness and don’t enter any judged racewalks. It’s a great way to get in shape and even lose some weight, if that’s your goal. About 20 people learned to racewalk this past summer as a part of Abe’s Army, the Springfield Road Runners Club’s preparation for the 10K Abe’s Amble the last day of the Illinois State Fair. New racewalkers joined the group as it continued into the fall.

“Racewalking helped me intensify my regular workouts, lose weight and make new friends,” said Diane Rutledge, an Abe’s Army member from Springfield. “I am happy to sing the praises of racewalking.”

Others become avid racewalkers because of the opportunity for athletic competition. In September eight of the racewalkers over the age of 50 from the Abe’s Army group entered the racewalk event at the Illinois Senior Olympics in Springfield. None were disqualified for violations of the racewalking rules, and all eight won age-group medals and qualified for next summer’s National Senior Games at Stanford University.

Racewalking rules

Racewalkers participating in judged races are disqualified if three judges observe them violate either of the two rules of racewalking. The first rule is that it must appear to the naked eye that the athlete always maintains contact with the ground, i.e. the trailing foot may not leave the ground before the heel of the lead leg touches the ground. In reality, most of the top racewalkers do have an “in flight” period where both feet are off the ground, but it is of such short duration that a judge cannot detect it.

This rule does not present much difficulty for beginning racewalkers.

The second rule is that the lead leg must be straightened at the knee from the time the heel makes contact with the ground until the leg is vertical underneath the body. Once the leg is past vertical, the knee may be bent. Racewalkers bend their knees on the trailing leg as it swings forward but must straighten it again before heel strike in front of the body.

Racewalking medal winners at the September 2008 Illinois Senior Olympics who were part of Abe’s Army or who joined the racewalking group as it continued in the fall are, from left to right: Bill Thomas, Duane Wilson, Brent Bohlen, Joyce Ludwig, Kate Kanal
PHOTO BY CHUCK LUDWIG

Everyone finds compliance with this rule awkward at first, but practice gradually makes it feel more natural.

“About the fourth or fifth evening I began to feel comfortable keeping my knee straight,” said Joyce Ludwig, one of the Abe’s Army racewalkers. “Then I started working on keeping my shoulders down and moving my arms. Once I became comfortable with my form, my entire body started to relax. It all fell into place.”

Even world-class racewalkers may get caught violating the rules. Several were disqualified during races at the Beijing Olympics this past summer.

Technique

The North American Racewalking Foundation’s Web site (www.philsport.com/narf/) provides an excellent primer on racewalking technique. The site’s Racewalking 101 tutorial uses an animated stick figure to illustrate proper form.

“Perfect your technique first,” advised the aptly named Max Walker of Greenwood, Ind., winner of about 20 national age-group racewalking titles up to 50K. Speed can come later.

It’s beneficial for beginners to have an experienced racewalker help with technique. Bad habits can be difficult to break.

The basics of good technique include an upright posture with head up and eyes looking ahead. Arms should be bent at approximately a right angle and should swing such that the hand moves from about mid-chest height slightly in front of the body to just behind the hip. Elbows should not flail out to the side but be kept close to the body. All energy is expended moving forward, not wasted going side to side.

The ankle on the lead leg should be flexed upward as far as possible so that the toe of the shoe is pointing up when the heel strikes the ground. The ankle should remain flexed up while rocking forward onto the bottom of the foot, as if the bottom of the foot were the runner on a rocking chair. As the body moves forward and the leg trails behind, the foot continues to rock and the heel lifts off the ground. Before the foot leaves the ground, the ankle and toe are extended to push off and propel the body forward. The knee is bent as the leg swings forward, but it must be straightened again before the heel touches the ground in front of the body.

The stride should be short in front of the body and longer behind the body. (Yes, that is possible.) The feet should land in front of one another. Imagine someone walking down a painted stripe that is four inches wide. In regular walking, the right foot would fall off of the right side of the stripe, and the left foot would fall to the left of the stripe. In racewalking, each footstep would touch the stripe. The idea is to efficiently move forward, not side to side.

Special note to men

“It’s easier to get women to give up running than to get men to give up running,” said Bonnie Stein, a coach based in Florida who has taught thousands to racewalk. When she explains to potential trainees that racewalking will give the same aerobic benefit as running with less abuse to the body, women are ready to switch. But she said many men persist in abusing their injured joints by continuing to try to run. Perhaps some men think any activity with the word “walk” in it must be wimpy. They could not be more wrong. The winner in the men’s 50K racewalk at the Beijing Olympics completed the course in three hours and 37 minutes, or seven minutes per mile for 31 miles, without running. Nothing wimpy about that.

Brent Bohlen is completing a book that encourages health-conscious baby boomers to take up racewalking as a low-impact alternative to running and jogging. He placed fifth in the 55-59 age group in the 1,500 meter and 5K racewalk events at the 2007 National Senior Games in Louisville, Ky. He expects to again train racewalkers as a part of the Springfield Road Runners Club’s 2009 Abe’s Army program.

The two rules of racewalking

1.It must appear to the naked eye that the athlete always maintains contact with the ground.

2. The lead leg must be straightened at the knee from the time the heel makes contact with the ground until the leg is vertical underneath the body.

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