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Getting started: Race walking

May 8, 2012
Getting started Race walking

Want to try out a new sport but can’t find what you’re looking for? In this Olympic year why not try an event from the Games? Peter Cassidy of the Race Walking Association gives us the low-down on race walking.What’s it all about?
Race walking is an extension of ordinary walking, carried to greater lengths and with care taken that no running occurs. The first stages are very easy to grasp but, as with all sports, real progress needs some application. It is a recognised sport for both men and women, is included in the Olympic Games and has events over many different distances.

As an Olympic sport, race walking doesn’t unfortunately get the coverage it deserves. How much did you know about it before reading this piece? Probably the same amount as top British race walker Jo Jackson (pictured above, front right) before she took up the sport. Watch out for our interview with Jo in the near future!

The basics
There are just two rules that define race walking;
1. One foot must be on the ground at all times. (Everyone walks ordinarily like this.)
2. When the leading foot touches the ground, that knee must be straight and must remain straight until the leg is vertical. (This is a bit trickier to grasp but will soon come with practice.)

In a race, judges will be there to make sure that these rules are kept and to disqualify anyone not walking “legally”. There is no shame in being disqualified; it happens to everyone and it is no more cheating than doing a foot-fault at tennis or being leg-before-wicket at cricket.

At first sight, race walking may look a bit peculiar; this is because the good walker rotates her hips to lengthen her stride. She will also “drop” the hip of the non-supporting leg as it swings through. These two movements give the characteristic “wiggle” of the race walker.

Equipment and clothing
Any comfortable clothing – such as a tracksuit and trainers – will do in the early stages until you come to racing (if you choose to race) when your knees will have to be uncovered so that the judges can see that they are straight. The shoes should be flexible so that a good push-off can be obtained but do not need any cushioning as in running shoes.

Some women prefer to wear an athletic bra but this is purely a matter of personal taste and comfort.

Apart from that, all you need is a good surface to practice on!

Is it for me?
If there are no medical indications against taking exercise, then race walking is for you – it’s one of the friendliest of sports for a number of reasons. It is not a very large sport, so you will be welcomed and will soon get to know people.

Many events have men and women competing at the same time and you may find in your first race that the winner is an international walker. An experienced walker who has just beaten you will probably be willing to give you advice and if you have the misfortune to be disqualified, the judges will always tell you why.

Don’t be afraid of being outclassed; there are events over many different distances and there are events restricted to “veterans” or “masters”, who are over 35 years old.

To help beginners and those who are not as flexible as they once were, there are what are known as “Category B” races, in which the rule about straight knees does not apply.

It is always useful to join a club – or, if there isn’t one near you, to form one – for coaching advice, someone to train with, etc., even if you don’t intend to race. A lot of advice – including an Introductory Pack – can be obtained from the web site mentioned below.

The benefits
Like running, race walking has enormous benefits from the cardio-vascular point of view and also improves flexibility.

Where walking has the edge is that, because the rules don’t let you leave the ground, you equally don’t come down with a bump, sending a shock through your feet, ankles, knees, hips, spine and neck. Injuries are comparatively rare among race walkers and are much more likely to come in the gym from over-doing it than out on the road or track.

Did you know?
In 1864, Emma Sharp of Bradford walked one mile in each of 1000 consecutive hours; she wore men’s clothes, smoked a clay pipe and carried a brace of pistols to deter any gamblers with money on her failure.

In 1876, Ada Anderson walked a mile and a half every hour for 672 hours in a music hall in King’s Lynn, occasionally playing the piano during her rest-breaks. Daringly, her hem-line was above her knees, but her sleeves reached her wrists and she had a very demure collar-line.

The first national champion for women was Edith Trickey, who won the 880 yards walk in 1923 in 4 minutes and 35 seconds.

The present world record for 10,000 metres is 41 minutes, 56·23 seconds by Nadezhda Rysahkina; that’s about six and three-quarter minutes a mile!

Helpful Links
By going to the “Want to try race walking?” page on the Race Walking Association website you can ask for a free copy of the Introductory Pack, which includes a booklet, a note of your nearest clubs, a copy of the Association’s magazine and some other useful information.

If you have specific queries, you can e-mail the R.W.A. at RaceWalkingAssociation@btinternet.com .

Peter Cassidy, Sportsister
The Women’s Sports Magazine

Image credit: Mark Easton – http://markeaston.zenfolio.com

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