By Bonnie Stein, M.Ed.
There was some grumbling in the racewalking community a year and a half ago when the straight knee rule was updated. Prior to January 1996, a racewalker could plant the leg in any manner as long as the knee was straightened when the leg was in “the vertical support phase.” The racewalkers who had been planting their leg with a bent knee, and then straightening on the way back, had to make some drastic and immediate changes in their technique in order to avoid disqualification.
No one likes forced change, but the loudest objections came from the masters racewalkers, many who claimed that it wasn’t possible to straighten their knees. I am convinced that most racewalkers, at any age, can be legal if they are willing to take the time to make the changes necessary to have straight knees.
Many are not. I teach eight racewalking classes per week in Atlanta. Since I began teaching almost eight years ago, over 6000 people have passed through the Beginning Racewalking classes. Of that at least 1000 were over the age of 55. I've had some in their 90's and plenty in their 60's and 70's. I'm telling you this so that you know that I actually have worked with older racewalkers - - - I'm not just guessing what I think they can do with their knees.
First you have to ask yourself if you’re willing to work on getting a straight knee. For an older walker, who is not very flexible, I'm not just talking about a couple of weeks. It could take months to regain flexibility. I've had some younger walkers who are not willing to put forth the effort. So, they'll continue to get DQed. Other walkers aren’t willing to slow down long enough to work on correcting poor technique. They're content to pray for lenient judges and take their chances each time they race.
Here's how to tell if you are able to straighten. Using a full length mirror, face sideways and straighten your knees. If you can do it standing, you can do it while walking once you have the muscle strength (in the anterior tibialis to elevate the foot) and the muscle flexibility (in the hamstrings and calves.)
Once we identify that you can straighten your knees while standing, I would then have you walk on your heels with your toes up. Can you keep straight knees? The answer is yes (99% of the time) but it's hard to do if your shin muscle (the tibialis anterior) is weak. It will usually be weak if you are accustomed to walking flat-footed.
Next, from the heel walking start racewalking slowly for 10 meters or so, then go back to heel walking for a few steps, then back to racewalking, then back to heel walking. Do it over and over until you’re comfortable with the feeling.
For a while I would suggest that you do not race. Why?
When competitive people get into a race, they revert right back to their old bent knee habits so that old Harry or Ethyl won't get ahead of them. Temporarily, I'd keep someone with bent knee problems away from competition.
To get straight knees stretch EVERY DAY - especially the hamstrings and the calves. There's some controversy regarding how to stretch, but I like plain old static stretching which has served me very well for 13 years of racewalking. I recommend Bob Anderson's book Stretching which is available at most book stores. There are other sources: stretching with ropes (assisted stretching), partner stretching, PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation) stretching, two second, three second, four second, ten second stretching and so on and so on. If a person gets turned on to stretching with ropes I'm content - as long as they stretch. My only two recommendations about stretching: Warm up before you stretch and no ballistic (fast and bouncy) stretching. Remember what NIKE says.
Next, strengthen the shin muscles. There are lots of good ideas for this one. You'll find them in my book called How Racewalking Healed Broken Bones and Other Amazing Racewalking Stories. Just kidding - no book. For information on how to strengthen your shins for racewalking, see the August 1994 and July/August 1995 issues of this magazine. Or send me a self addressed, stamped envelope and I will mail the articles to you. (Ed: send requests for back issues with $- - - per issue to ___________________.)
One of the best things you can do is have another racewalker (who has straight knees) video tape you and himself racewalking. Then have that racewalker tape you while you walk slowly on your heels. Observe what your knees look like when they are straight and when they are bent. Then observe how the other racewalker’s knees are straightening.
If all else fails - I have found that the Tonya Harding method works quite nicely.