By Bonnie Stein, M.Ed.
If you're going to racewalk competitively, you'll need to be familiar with USA Track & Field rules, words like "lifting" and "creeping", what type of clothes are allowed in a judged racewalk, training schedules, periodization, your anaerobic threshold, and other possibly unfamiliar terms. However, if your goal is fitness, but not competition, and you've selected racewalking to get you there, you only need to be familiar with the W's of racewalking. The Who's, What's, and When's.
WHO can do it?
Racewalking is for anyone who wants to get more benefits from their walking workout. The name "racewalking" sounds competitive, but you don't have to race to racewalk. The best things about racewalking have nothing to do with racing. It's a way to get all the cardiovascular fitness and weight loss benefits of running without the compression. For those who like competition - there are plenty of opportunities at all age levels.
I've had racewalking students from 8 years old (a medal winner in the Junior Olympics) to racewalkers in their 80's and 90's who were award winners in the Senior Olympics. Most of my students are in their 30's through 60's. It's truly a sport for any age and any fitness level including brand new beginners to exercise. As a fitness instructor I'm supposed to add - check with your physician before initiating any new exercise program, including walking. Actually I think people who don't exercise should be the ones checking with their physicians because they're the ones who are at risk. But that's another article.
WHAT is racewalking?
You don't have to race to racewalk? Then, what do you have to do to be a racewalker? The official USA Track and Field rule defines racewalking as "a progression of steps so taken that the walker makes contact with the ground so that no visible (to the human eye) loss of contact occurs. The advancing leg must be straightened (i.e. not bent at the knee) from the moment of first contact with the ground until the leg is in the vertical upright position."
Note that nothing in the definition says that you're only a racewalker if you can walk a 10 minute pace or faster. In fact, you're a racewalker, no matter what your pace, if you're complying with the official rules of racewalking.
I have a current student (physician referral) who started racewalking to lose weight. Her physician wanted her to learn the proper walking techniques and safe practices that go along with racewalking, so he referred her to a Beginning Racewalking class. She weighed close to 300 pounds when we had our first lesson. At that weight, she was in her proper training zone when she was racewalking a mile in 27 minutes. That's pretty darn slow compared to the 20K Olympic racewalkers who walk a mile in 6 1/2 minutes and keep it up for 12.4 miles.
Yet, for this woman, 27 minutes per mile was her perfect racewalking pace to start out. As she lost weight, became more fit, and improved her racewalking techniques her times became faster. She currently can do a mile in 18 minutes and she's aiming to get under 15 - her goal, not mine.
WHEN should you do it?
I started racewalking in 1984 when I had torn the meniscus in my right knee and couldn't run. It was a partial tear and I wanted to avoid surgery. Racewalking didn't hurt my knee at all so my doctor welcomed me to do it. But I was still in my 20's at the time and pretty embarrassed to be walking instead of running. Walking was for old people.
I did what any respectable runner would do back then - I went out to do my racewalking about 10 PM when it was plenty dark and none of my neighbors would be out and about to see me.
I've come a long way since then and I now proudly racewalk in the light of day. Research shows that those who do their exercise first thing in the morning are the ones who stick with it year after year. Oprah Winfrey's former personal trainer, Bob Greene, says that he won't accept a client unless they will commit to morning exercise.
Yet, there's nothing magical about morning exercise in terms of burning fat, losing weight, or getting fit. Exercise will work whenever you do it. You've just got to do it. I have plenty of students who are not early birds but will do their racewalking right after work. One tip from a racewalker - take your exercise clothes to work and change at work before you leave. Then go by a park on the way home and do your racewalking on the way home. If you go home first - too many things (phone calls, e-mail, regular mail, etc.) will get in the way. But, if you don't mind waking up early, research says you'll be more successful if you do it in the morning.
Think about your goals. If your goals are health and fitness - do some aerobic exercise, like racewalking, a minimum of 3 days a week. If your goal is weight loss - exercise every day. Now that I'm in my 40's I don't think walking is for old people at all. In fact, I hope to be one of those 90-year olds competing in the Senior Olympics 50 years from now. Hope you'll join me.