You don’t have to race to race walk. But if you do compete in judged races, two rules apply: The knee of the supporting leg must straighten for a split second as it passes under the body, and the front heel must contact the ground before the rear foot leaves the ground. Although sometimes controversial (just like line calls in tennis or football), both are still judged by the human eye as of this writing.
Race walking has been around for centuries. Men’s race walking became part of the Olympic Games in 1908, with competitors today testing their skills in 20- and 50-kilometer events, reaching average speeds of 6- to 7-minute miles for the distance. Women joined the Olympics in 1992 with a 10-kilometer race, in which many of them averaged 7-minute miles. The women’s event was changed to 20 kilometers in the late 1990s, with many still approaching an average 7-minute-mile pace.
Race walking uses the basic, strong walking technique I’ve described, but it takes it a step further. The rear-toe push-off becomes almighty. Fast turnover distinguishes the champions from runners-up. Arm swings using the large back muscles power racers forward. Hip action, though, is what sets race walkers apart. Take a closer look at a good walker. The hip roll is simply a strong fit- ness walker’s hip movement (as previously described), greatly exaggerated. Contrary to popular belief, it is not a side-to-side sashay. Any movement side to side detracts from the energy needed to push forward. The hip movement allows a walker to cover more ground per stride without bouncing, and the more ground a walker covers with each step, the more quickly he or she reaches the finish line. Good race walkers should look as if they’re skimming the ground, nearly floating over its surface. Their heads should not change planes. Knees, as the rules state, must straighten upon heel landing. Note the word is straighten, not lock. Locking the knees can harm cushioning cartilage.
Studies have shown that the biomechanical breakpoint between walking and running—that point at which your body wants to run slowly because bounding off the ground actually takes less effort than walking fast—is a little slower than a 12-minute mile, or 4.8 to 4.9 miles per hour. What that means is that most people’s bodies will naturally tell them to start running when they near that speed; if you’ve never tried to walk fast, you’ll get a funny sensation as you near that point—as if someone were whispering in your ear, “Go ahead, run!” You actually have to use more muscle to continue to walk at that speed than if you indeed broke into a trot. This is where you will discover that indeed walking is not just slow running. Using more muscle means you also use more calories, and that’s likely part of your goal with an activity program.