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Olympic Sports Fiftysomethings Should Try: Race Walking

It may look funny, but race walking is as good a lifelong workout as you can get

By Matthew Solan | August 1, 2012
Race walking in Mannerheimintie, Helsinki, Finland in 2005 World Championships
The 2005 race walking World Championships in Finland
Tomisti | Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

This is the third article in a five-part series from writer Matthew Solan on Summer Olympic sports that fiftysomething readers may want to take up to boost their fitness.

Okay, we'll admit it: Race walking looks funny. You try to go as fast as you can — without actually going as fast as you can. You madly pump your arms, swivel your hips for momentum, and take quick steps like you are about to break into a trot, though you never do.

It may be one of the quirkiest events of the Summer Games, but race walking is also one of the few Olympic-level sports that almost anyone can take up at any age. It’s great for adults who can't run like they once did, but still strive to be active and competitive.

(MORE: 4 Ways to Turn Your Walk Into a Workout)

Race walking differs from traditional running in that you have to maintain contact with the ground at all times. You must straighten your front knee when your foot touches the ground, and keep it straight until your knee passes under your body. In competitive races, judges keep a sharp eye out for fouls, and disqualifications are not unusual.
 
Race walking first appeared in the modern Olympics in 1904, on a half-mile course. Today, men compete in 20- and 50-kilometer events. Women's Olympic race walking began as a 10K event in 1992. It was increased to 20K in 2000. At the London Games, Russian and Chinese walkers will be the favorites in both the men's and women's fields. Larry Young is the only American ever to win race walking medals, claiming bronze in both 1968 and 1972.
 
How to Start Race Walking

Race walking appears easy, but it's a challenging, demanding sport. World-class race walkers can average sub-seven-minute miles in a 20-km (12-mile) event, faster than most people can run.

Race walking may also be healthier than running. Dr. James Rippe, professor of biomedical sciences at the University of Central Florida and author of The Complete Book of Fitness Walking, says that high-speed race walking burns about 120 to 130 calories per mile, compared with 100 to 110 burned by running. It's also a lower-impact activity. Since you always have one foot on the ground, you don't slam your legs into the pavement with each stride, limiting wear-and-tear on your knees. And race walking offers a top-to-bottom workout:

  • Arm pumping generates energy, toning the shoulders, neck and chest as it propels you into a steady clip. “You want your arms close to your body and constantly at a 90-degree angle,” says Cindi Leeman, 51, a long-time race walker and founder of Walk magazine. “If your arms are straight down and you swing them, this slows you down.”
  • What looks like an exaggerated hip swivel when you watch race walkers is actually a full rotation of the pelvis. Race walkers move their pelvis forward to minimize sideways motion and reach maximum forward propulsion.
  • Your feet move in quick steps with rapid turnover, with the push off coming from the ball of your foot.
To begin your race walking career, just go for a stroll, Leeman says. “Don’t worry about speed or form at first, just walk around your neighborhood for 10 to 20 minutes.” Depending on your health and stamina, you can work on stretching your distance and time. Leeman suggests timing yourself over a one-mile route and then using your result "as a base to work toward increasing your pace and speed,” before moving to longer distances. You can find more tips on technique at racewalkclinic.com.

(MORE: Synchronized Swimming: An Olympic Sport Fiftysomethings Should Try)

Once you begin walking regularly, you can work your way up to competitive events like 5Ks, half-marathons or even full marathons. In her 10 years as a race walker, Leeman has completed 30 half-marathons and two marathons. Most organized road races are open to walkers but usually do not have a separate race walking division, so you'll be competing alongside runners.
 
Race walking is also an ideal group activity. Grab a friend or two, or join a local club. (You can find a listing at racewalking.org.) The support, guidance and motivation can push you forward.
 
What You Need to Start Race Walking
  • Good Shoes and Socks. Go to a running store to get professionally fit. Most people need a sneaker 1 to 1.5 sizes larger than their regular shoes for comfort, support and increased toe room. Check out the latest shoe reviews for race walkers here. Also, cotton socks won't do for race walkers; they hold moisture in. Instead, use lightweight athletic socks with a high wicking capacity.
  • Good Terrain. Choose routes with flat surfaces and few obstacles. When you race walk, your feet touch the ground much more than when you run, so it is easier to trip. Walk on neighborhood sidewalks, or seek out running tracks or smooth, well-maintained trails.
  • Good Tracking. Whether you walk to improve your time, your health or both, keep a detailed record of each outing. "Note how far you traveled, your time, the time of day, the weather and how you felt," Leeman says. The information will help you accurately track your progress, identify areas for improvement and fuel your motivation to stride faster, ever faster.