By Bonnie Stein, M.Ed.
A number of years ago, I racewalked the Heart Trek in Atlanta with a ten year old student. Matt had been a medal winner in the Junior Olympics, but had never done a 5K race. (The Junior Olympic distance for 10 year olds is 1500 meters, just under a mile.) So, a 3.1 mile race seemed overwhelming to him. Not to mention that Heart Trek takes place in downtown Atlanta - a very hilly area.
I promised Matt that I would stay with him for the whole race, this being his first. Up each hill, I reminded him to shorten his stride, change his arm motion, and not to bend at the waist. Downhill, I reminded him not to lean back and also that gravity was his friend. “Let the hill take you down, Matt. Remember, gravity is your friend,” I repeated over and over.
As we rounded the bend for the finish line, I saw a long downhill. Even though many racewalkers don’t like downhills, they’re my favorite - if you do them right. “All right Matt, here’s the time to relax. Shorten your steps. Don’t fight the hill. Let gravity take you down. Stay compact. Remember, gravity is your friend.”
We started to zoom ahead. We passed one runner, then another. We were coming up on two female running friends, huffing and puffing as they also were picking up their pace into the finish. “O.K., Matt,” I tried to give him one last encouragement since he was working harder than he ever had done. “It’s easy from here. Just keep thinking, ‘Gravity is your friend.’” As we slipped by the two women, one runner said to her friend, “She obviously hasn’t reached 40 yet.”
No matter what your age, 10, 40 or beyond - proper hill technique is the key to racewalking safely and quickly up and down hills. Plus, you’ll end up liking those “moderately rolling courses” a lot better than you probably do now.
Curt Clausen, U.S. 20K Olympic Racewalker, believes that racewalking uphill is easy, “although most physically demanding.” Clausen suggests that the key is to “quicken your turnover by shortening your stride length.” He believes that the arms are a factor as well. “Use your arms to force a more rapid turnover. The elbow angle of the arms should tighten to a 45 degree angle (more or less) in order to facilitate a more compact and rapid arm action. The arm action will help you drive up the hill.”
Martin Rudow, former coach of the National Men’s Racewalk Team and Chief Judge in the 1996 Olympic Racewalk, says that he’s questioned frequently about hills. Like most coaches, he suggests taking a shorter stride up the hills. Tongue in cheek, he adds, “Avoid hills when you can. They’re tough on the knees, especially going down.” I guess Rudow isn’t too familiar with the race courses that we have to contend with in Atlanta.
Jonathan Matthews, a Professor of Education at Indiana University, is also a well respected racewalker, who at 41 is having an extraordinary year. He has set four Open American Records and eight Masters American Records. He was the 1993 Racewalker of the Year and the 1996 Masters Racewalker of the Year. Matthews concurs with shortening the stride for uphill racewalking. The reason is to avoid creeping (bent knee) going uphill.
Other things to remember while racewalking uphill - the steeper the hill, the tighter the angle of the elbows. I match my forearms with the hill elevation. Fists should point up, but still keep them below the sternum, just like in flat terrain racewalking. Try to anticipate the hill ahead by always looking forward, not down. That way you can make the adjustments necessary as you approach the hill. I teach my students to pretend that they have a rubber band around the knees while going uphill or down. That visualization forces the stride to stay tighter.
I agree with Clausen that “too many runners and racewalkers work against gravity when going downhill.” According to Clausen, “The key to downhill speed is to allow your body to go with the hill and minimize the tendency to use your front foot as a break.” Gravity is your friend.
Clausen adds, “Going fast downhill is complicated by the need to maintain contact with the ground.” Again, shorten your stride and “increase turnover to the fastest possible rate, which will mean you can literally fly down the hill.” Matthews also advises the importance of shortening the stride on the way down. It helps the racewalker maintain contact with the ground and avoid lifting, which would lead to disqualification.
There are many thoughts on how to do hills. These are some that have worked for me and many other racewalkers and also what some of the best in racewalking say about doing hills. If you’ve learned something different, why not experiment to see what works best for you. Just remember - gravity is your friend on the way down, whether you’re 40 or not.