Race walking – What every athlete and athletics fan needs to know…

One of the best things about athletics is the wide variety of ways in which people can push themselves to their limits. Some of these are pretty obvious – such as the 100m where the goal is: “run fast”. Race walking is probably the least straightforward discipline in athletics, being widely misunderstood, commonly dismissed and sometimes altogether unknown. However, it has a charm and a challenge that will resonate with any athletics fan.

Race walkers rarely start without some outside encouragement. A common story is that they are entered into an event just to get the points for the club. Sometimes they are told to do it as a rehab exercise for running injuries. Then there are those like me, having been brought up with race walking in the family and a role model to follow. However it happens, they find the novel challenge to be exhilarating and, with commitment, manage to master the technique.

The technique is what makes race walking different to running. It’s not just different but, while a good running style is crucial for speed and economy, race walking technique is written into the rules of the event. I could go into the details of IAAF Rule 230 but instead it will suffice to say that it requires a lot more concentration and effort to maintain and if the judges think that you are failing to comply then you will be disqualified.

The threat of disqualification adds a lot of excitement, and a lot of pain. Imagine being 10 miles into a race, feeling good, on course for a big PB, only to be pulled from the race. (I don’t have to imagine.) In big races, usually around 10% of starters are disqualified and they often happen later on with dramatic effects on the race dynamic.

But of course race walkers want to go as fast as they can within these rules and this is where the ‘wiggle’ comes in. This is actually a rotation of the pelvis to lengthen the stride without lifting off the ground. In normal walking you have about 4º of rotation but race walkers exaggerate this to about 20º. People often ask me if this is bad for the hips but it’s not, it just looks rather odd.

Check out this Blog for more information on this hips in race walking.

Anyway, the race walker must learn the technique and develop the strength and flexibility to maintain it, as well as the discipline and focus. Then they start going further. There are races for beginners of around 2-3km. Some of the top race walkers will compete in 5km races to work on a bit of speed. A decent level race walker can do 5km in under 25 minutes and the fastest men can do 18-20 minutes. Runners will start to appreciate how fast race walkers can move – perhaps when being overtaken.

However, race walking is about endurance. The main events are currently 20km and 50km, although there is an (unpopular) move to change the historic distances. I’m the current UK champion for 50km and my best time so far is 4 hours and 37 minutes – I went through a marathon distance in just under 4 hours. The world record is over an hour faster.You might be able to guess from this fact that Great Britain is not a leading country in race walking. It used to be, especially during the 60s when we had Olympic champions Don Thompson and Ken Matthews and world record holder Paul Nihill, among many others.

Now, race walking is a global event. Japan and China have terrifying depth and they take the event seriously, and the Russians were a dominant force too, before being banned from international competition. But there are genuine contenders from five continents. Occasionally someone will pop up from some little-heard-of country and take on the rest of the world, becoming a national hero in the process, like Jefferson Pérez of Ecuador or Matej Tóth of Slovakia.

I may be biased, but I think it takes a hero to be a race walker. Race walkers don’t get worldwide fame or huge sponsorship deals, more often being mocked and disregarded. It’s a gruelling event, with a high risk of exhaustion or disqualification. Yet the satisfaction of overcoming the technique, the distance, other competitors and the critics is incredible. (And, of course, it’s a great skill if you ever find yourself needing the toilet in a hurry.)

Jonathan Hobbs has been race walking for over 15 years and also competes in road running and steeplechase. He is an athletics coach and personal trainer based at The Stour Centre in Ashford, Kent.

You can find out more about Jonathan at his website

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