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 Bonnie Stein

          Bonnie Stein, M.Ed.

Racewalking for Runners

By Bonnie Stein, M.Ed.

I had the pleasure of picking up George Sheehan at the Atlanta airport some years ago and riding with him to a Walking Leadership Conference, where we were both presenters.  Dr. Sheehan said that he believed that walking (in one's target heart rate zone) and running made a perfect marriage and more runners should explore using walking in their training.  He said that walking made a lot more sense to use as cross training for running than did swimming and cycling.

I took the opportunity to prod this well respected running guru about his opinions on walking for exercise.  I asked Dr. Sheehan if he believed that runners would ever accept walking as a viable running alternative and not see it as the "wimpy sport" for old people or those who were injured.  He was pensive for a moment.  "Hmmm.  Well, probably not in my lifetime, he said softly.  Then he added, "Did you know I have cancer?" (Dr. George Sheehan passed away in 1998).

RUNNERS RECOMMEND WALKING
Dr. Sheehan is not the only one to recommend walking to runners.  Jeff Galloway and other well-respected runners have told us that it's acceptable, even wise, to use walking breaks in long runs such as marathons.  However, there's another use of walking in your running programs - walking in your target heart rate zone.  I'm talking about high intensity walking, walking as a cardiovascular exercise, and especially walking as an enhancement to your running.

Actually, walking has been recommended for runners and other athletes long before Jeff Galloway or Dr. Sheehan took their first running steps.  Way back at the turn of the century, Harry Andrews, a well- respected running coach, advocated the use of walking for runners.  Andrews coached the great runner, Alfie Shrubb, who in his time, held all the world records for distances from two to 15 miles.  Shrubb spent considerable time walking because Andrews felt that walking offered "by far the greatest benefit of any form of training in its results."

Dr. Sheehan agreed about the role of walking as cross training.  He was quoted as saying, "It is possible that walking will enhance our running more than any of our current alternative sports such as cycling, swimming, or weight lifting."  He went on to say, "walking and running are no more than two forms of the same activity."

Another great runner who used racewalking in his training was Emil Puttemas from Belgium.  Puttemas was the long-time world record holder for the 3000-meter run in the 1970's.  Before track season began each year, Puttemas trained with racewalking and even entered racewalking races.  He claimed that the arm action of racewalking was helpful for coordination and led to powerful arm action, which helped his running performance.

WHAT IF YOU CAN'T WALK FAST ENOUGH?
I know what you're thinking.  You can't get anywhere near your target heart rate zone with walking.  Maybe so with regular walking.   But, have you tried racewalking style?  Many runners have found remarkable success when they've learned racewalking techniques to incorporate into their programs.

RUNNERS WHO RACEWALK
Patricia Hopkins, a 31-year old pharmacist says, "I did my best ever Boston Marathon after learning how to racewalk."  Prior to racewalking, Hopkins says that injuries were commonplace and Advil was dessert on a regular basis.  She enrolled in a racewalking class to cross train while she aimed for the Marine Corps Marathon.  When Hopkins qualified for the Boston Marathon, "I decided to keep up the racewalking every other day and run every other day.  I was starting to like racewalking more than I thought I would."

Hopkins' training program paid off.  She recently ran a 3:38 marathon, which was her best time ever.  "I felt great afterwards and wasn't injured during the time that I was using racewalking in my training.  Plus I haven't taken Advil in five months."  Hopkins also finished in the top 10 percent of women and already re-qualified for the upcoming Boston Marathon.

        Hopkins decided to keep up with her racewalking training to see if she could improve her time in the Disney World Marathon in January.  It worked - she cut seven minutes off her Boston Marathon time with a new PR of 3:31 - over 14 minutes faster than her last Disney World Marathon.  You would think large improvements are expected with any new runner, but Hopkins is not a new runner.  She's been running for seven years and has been doing marathons for five.

Hopkins explained, "Before racewalking, I was having to take too many rest days.  I was always sore from my running workouts.  Racewalking allows me to rest my running muscles while still getting a great workout.  Some days I do my long training with racewalking and feel fine afterwards."  Hopkins ran the entire Disney World Marathon.  She was the 21st woman out of over 400 in her age group.  Regular walking didn't afford Hopkins, nor most fit runners, a comparable cardiovascular workout to running.  Hopkins reports that racewalking does.

James Walker, a 54-year-old veterinarian, celebrated 24 years of running the famous Peachtree Road Race in 2000.  He also celebrated a new PR of 40:17 and earned the coveted "Top 1000" Peachtree Road Race mug.  His fastest time to date was 40:58 back in 1986.  Walker says he was surprised for two reasons.  First, runners rarely set PR's in the Peachtree (a hot, humid, and crowded race) - certainly not after 24 years of running.

Second, Walker did less running than ever to prepare for Peachtree.  Most of his training was with racewalking.  "I averaged an hour and a half of running per week and four hours of racewalking per week.  There's no question that racewalking helped me get my fastest 10K time ever.  Racewalking kept me as fit as running always has.  The difference is that I wasn't injured at all this year so I didn't have to take any time off from training like every other year."

Walker, who is currently in first place in his age group in the Atlanta Track Club's Grand Prix Running series, said that using racewalking techniques helped him run faster during the Peachtree.  I used racewalking style arms and didn't "chicken wing" like I used to do.  I concentrated on my foot roll and pushed off with my toes.  I kept upright and felt so good in the race that I ran my sixth mile in six minutes."  A huge advantage for Walker since he's been racewalking is that his shins have become much stronger.  "I always used to get shin splints when I ran fast.  Since racewalking has strengthened my shins, running doesn't ever bother them."

Thirty-seven-year-old Laura Crockett agrees that racewalking has afforded her more training days.  "As a runner, I could only train four days a week if I wanted to stay injury-free.  With a combination of racewalking and running I am training six or seven days a week and I'm putting in more mileage than I ever could before.

The training is paying off.  Crockett, the mother of two children under the age of three, ran a 1:22:45 15K at The Peachtree City Classic in October.  Six weeks later, she ran a new PR of 1:15:07 on a slightly harder and hillier course, and earned a bronze medal in her age group.  Between the two races, Crockett had been running two days a week and racewalking four or five days a week.

According to Crockett the benefits of incorporating racewalking for a runner are significant.  Besides fewer injuries and more training days, she says, "racewalking forces you to use good technique, so you become more aware of your running technique as well."  Early this year she completed the Hogpen Hill Climb - a grueling 10.74-mile up-the-mountain run.  "I was ready to quit until I realized that I could rest my muscles and go faster by alternating running and racewalking."

Crockett alternates running and racewalking even in her everyday workouts.  "I can stretch my endurance significantly on my long runs by inserting racewalking breaks that allow my muscles to recuperate; my overall times are actually faster."  I frequently used to suffer from 'lead legs' during my long runs.  By alternating racewalking and running days, my legs feels like they've had a day off."

Is it working?  "Well, I'm running faster," says Crockett, "and I haven't had an injury since I've been racewalking.  It must be working.  I can't tell any difference in the aerobic benefits of running and racewalking."

WHAT ABOUT THE AEROBIC BENEFITS OF WALKING?
The key seems to be able to walk fast enough to maintain a target heart zone pace.  The first study to measure VO2 Max improvement of walkers was done at Dr. Kenneth Cooper's Institute for Aerobic Research in 1990, by Dr. John Duncan.  The results of the study compared the benefits of different walking intensities with results of previous running studies.

Three walking intensities were studied: 20 minutes per mile, 15 minutes per mile, and 12 minutes per mile.  All participants walked five days a week for three miles per session. The only variable was walking intensity.

The study revealed that walking intensity indeed does make a difference in both cardio respiratory improvement and the amount of calories burned per exercise session.  As measured by maximum oxygen uptake, only the fastest walkers were able to achieve fitness improvement similar to an exercise runner.  Those walkers, who incorporated racewalking techniques, were the only ones in the study that were able to achieve 86% of maximum heart rate.

Racewalkers in my advanced classes are able to maintain even higher heart rates during interval training.  In fact, while teaching a class called, "Racewalking for Runners" I have found that even very fit runners can reach upper levels of target heart rates during racewalking once they've mastered the techniques.
 

WHY DOES RACEWALKING WORK BETTER THAN WALKING?
The bent arm swing results in shorter pendulums, which are faster pendulums.  Since legs move in synchronization with the arms, if you're able to move your arms quicker through a range of motion, your legs will also move faster.

Racewalkers take a shorter stride to the front of their body.  A typical fitness walker's stride causes your leg to act like a brake in front of your body, thereby slowing you down.  By planting your heel closer to your center of gravity, you eliminate the braking action and can walk faster.

The rocking foot motion of racewalking allows your feet to propel you faster through the foot stride.  The flat-footed stepping action of the typical fitness walker is a slower way to walk.  Think about the difference of riding a bike with flat tires (flat-footed stepping) as compared to riding a bike with filled-up tires.

The hip rotation and hip drop during the racewalking stride are significant speed enhancement techniques for the walker.  In a proficient racewalker, they also lead to the smooth, efficient, and gliding look.

WHERE YOU CAN LEARN
If you'd like to try racewalking, it helps to get some basic instruction from a real person, rather than a book.  If your city has a walking club, that's the best place to start.  Some running clubs have racewalking divisions.  In some areas of the country there are racewalking classes for beginners.

Often you can corral a racewalker at a local race.  They're the walkers keeping up with many of the joggers.  In Atlanta we made it easy for the runners to find us.  We wore shirts that said, "How is my Walking?  Call 404-847-WALK."

 
2007 by Bonnie Stein. All Rights Reserved.

LIMITS OF LIABILITY AND DISCLAIMER - The authors and publishers of this newsletter have used their best efforts in preparing the articles and information contained within it. Additionally, you are advised to consult with your doctor before beginning an exercise program. The authors and publishers make no warranty of any kind, expressed or implied, and shall not be liable in the event of incidental or consequential damages.

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