“Run like someone’s watching” and 4 more ways runners can learn from race walking

In my articles for #WalkingWednesday I talk about race walking and its unique charm. I would love to think that I might have encouraged some of you to give it a go but I know I won’t have convinced everyone. However, you can still learn a lot from race walking that will help to improve your running.

Technique – Run like someone’s watching

In race walking, technique is incredibly important and if you get it wrong you risk disqualification check out my blog on this here. However, just because you won’t be disqualified in running that doesn’t mean you can be complacent. It should hardly need to be said that good running form can improve efficiency and speed and reduce the risk of injury. Yet many runners, especially mid-level runners who have been running for a couple of years of more, tend to miss out on technical training and fall into bad habits with a weak upper body and a lazy leg swing.

Race walkers have to continually work on technique and should be regularly observed by a knowledgeable coach. This means more than just doing a few token drills as a warm up, and it might involve specific technical sessions, video replay or even sophisticated biomechanical analysis. This can be just as beneficial for runners.

In competition, race walkers are always being observed by judges and this keeps them focussed and alert. It is not just about how you feel but also how you look. Runners should consider this too, because the best running technique is usually the best looking. Good running is smooth, strong and even graceful.

Versatility – Embrace variety

Race walking race distances range from less than 1km to 50km or more. The very short distances are mainly for novices or rare exhibition events, and the long distance events of 100 miles or multi-day events are the reserve of a crazy few. However, almost all competitive adult race walkers compete over at least 5km, 10km and 20km. This is a serious range.

Although the chances are slim that a runner will be great at both the 400m and the 1500m, for instance, it is still important to cover the whole range of fitness in training. A good long distance runner might not win if they entered a sprint race but they should be able to hold their own, certainly compared to the average. Obviously both speed and endurance are essential in any running event but, more importantly, a variety of training focus is the best way to sustain continued improvements in any aspect of fitness.

It is interesting to add that many race walkers are also decent runners. I am a sub-3 hour marathon runner as well as a national champion 50km walker. Running is used to keep training interesting and allow a break from the main focus. Runners should likewise do some sort of cross-training (like race walking, perhaps).

Periodisation – Keep fit but don’t over-race

This is something that some runners already do really well but among race walkers it is often done a lot better. As I just mentioned, a race walker can only do a couple of big races of the main distances over a year. This usually leads to a couple of peaks in the spring and summer, but the rest of the time there are smaller races to keep focussed.

It is important to maintain a good level of base fitness but this then has to build up as you approach a target. You can work on different aspects throughout the year – endurance, speed, technique, strength, mental readiness etc – but these have to all come together when it comes to the main event. Have a look at my website here

Fraternity – Be nice to eachother

One of the most endearing things about race walking is the sense of community. Because it is a niche discipline, race walkers know one another and they are enthusiastic about supporting other people doing the same thing.

Before every race there are scenes of long awaited reunion and catching up. During the race, athletes encourage one another when lapping or crossing over. In the 50km especially, everyone knows how tough it is getting and the support from other athletes is often what keeps us going. Then after the race, there comes earnest congratulation or commiseration.

I’m not saying that this doesn’t happen in running – of course it does – and nor can I claim that it is universal in race walking. However, it is an intimate community and every race walker really cares about the sport and their competitors. In my experience even the highest elite of race walkers are approachable and relatable. I have lined up on the same start line as the 50km world record holder and much as I revered him I couldn’t be intimidated by a smiling Frenchman trying to find somewhere for a last-minute toilet break.

Self-confidence – It doesn’t matter what people think

I started this article saying how useful it is to try and look good while you’re race walking or running. This is important but it is just as important to remember that you’re doing it for yourself. Every race walker is sometimes subject to an unpleasant reaction from onlookers, ranging from bemusement to downright maliciousness. A thick skin is therefore a fundamental requirement.

People are more accustomed to seeing runners so you are usually just ignored. However, there will always be people who step in the way, dogs who chase after you or just random circumstances that get on your nerves. You have to learn not to take these things personally. You have your own goals and get your own benefit from running, and that is all that really matters.

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.

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