Austin Racewalkers

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I’m Gary Davis of Austin, Texas, a racewalker since 2006. I created this web page to spread the word about racewalking, which I took up after 25 years of off-and-on injuries from running finally forced me to give up running as my primary sport. Since then, I have learned to love racewalking. I have been working on my technique for almost ten years but it still has plenty of room for improvement. In retrospect, it seems as though I spent the first few years just getting over some horrendous bad habits I picked up early on.

The first time racewalking coach Dave McGovern saw me try to racewalk, he asked me, “What in the hell are you doing?” Clearly, I didn’t know. My attempt at racewalking was the sad result of trying to learn from YouTube videos. But I did learn from Dave, from Tim Seaman, Phillip Dunn and other elite racewalkers I met in clinics and I learned by training every other day, taking occasional videos of myself, and always trying to improve. Racewalking has a creative aspect that really appeals to me: you find a problem, work on it in training, sleep on it and then find that you have learned a little more than it seems you should have by the next day — like any other creative activity.

If you want to start racewalking, my advice to you is first, get some zero-drop racing flats you can racewalk in, then, as soon as possible, take a clinic. There are only two racewalking clinics that I know of. This is one, this is the other. You will probably have to travel somewhere and spend a couple nights in a hotel, because neither traveling clinic comes near any particular city very often. But if you can possibly do it, there is no substitute.

There is a Dave McGovern clinic scheduled for November 11-13 in Galveston. This may be the closest racewalking clinic to Austin for quite some time. Info about it is here, on Dave’s website. It’s important to sign up early for these clinics, as they are subject to cancellation if there is not enough interest.

Learning to racewalk well requires a high level of individual commitment because there is almost zero support for the sport here in the United States. Most of the time, you will be learning and training on your own. You really need good coaching in the beginning to avoid bad habits that can hold you back for years. But to get good coaching, you will probably have to devote a weekend to it and pay out maybe a thousand bucks for airfare, hotel, car rental and the clinic fee.

And then you may be the only person racewalking on your track or trail. You may find a few more local racewalkers, you may find some local racewalking competition — or you may not. And, for most people, it takes a few years of working on their technique to get really good at it. Do you have that level of commitment? If not, then — although racewalking is a fantastic sport — you may be better off choosing something else.

What is Racewalking, Exactly?

What we might call “official” racewalking is more like running than what people usually think of as walking but with rules applied that turn it into a walk. In “official” racewalking contests, there are judges on hand to enforce the rules. This is the kind of racewalking you see in the Olympics. There are other styles of walking for fitness and competition, such as “power walking”, but we are only talking about “official” racewalking here — the kind with rules and judges.

The two rules of racewalking: (1) One foot must appear to the naked eye to be on the ground at all times and (2) the front knee must be straight from the time the heel hits the ground until the body passes over it. In official races, there are judges watching the racewalkers to enforce the rules. The characteristic hip motion of the racewalker is caused by the walker pulling his front leg strongly backward from the hip, extending the leg behind him as his opposite leg pivots forward, which adds an extra six inches or so to each stride.

Put together a fluid movement, good hip extension, a strong vault forward off the back toes, plus a lot of endurance, and the result can be surprisingly fast: elite racewalkers are going at around a 6-minute per mile pace. Of course, most of us are decidedly non-elite racewalkers. We are not that speedy. Depending on level of expertise, age, conditioning and many other factors, a typical recreational racewalker on a longer walk probably moves along at something between a ten and fourteen minute mile pace.

Developing a smooth, efficient, racewalking technique that allows you to go fast can take time. But it’s time well spent because it feels so wonderful once you learn how to do it. It's kind of like flowing or rolling along, rather than pounding.

Some Helpful Links

Dave’s World Class Racewalking is the website of Dave McGovern, racewalking coach and former member of the U.S. Olympic Racewalk Team. Dave’s site has information about his upcoming clinics and camps, his books, information about training and a photo gallery.

RaceWalkClinic.com is the website with information about Jeff Salvage & Tim Seaman’s racewalking clinics. Here, you’ll find advice about technique, a shop with several racewalking books and specifics about past and upcoming clinics. The “Technique Primer” on this site is an intricately detailed “how to racewalk” primer, covering several pages, with demo photos of Olympic racewalker Tim Seaman. It’s definitely worth your time.

An Austin Track & Field organization, Track for Life, sponsors local track meets that, in the past, have sometimes included competitive racewalks. Recently, however, due to lack of interest, there have not been any. If you think you might want to compete with other racewalkers in a 1.5 to 5K racewalk, contact Seth Brower at Track for Life. His address is t4life@trackforlife.com. Let him know of your interest and ask him to put you on his mailing list.

The New York Times published a short health article by Gretchen Reynolds on September 12, 2016 titled “How Does Race Walking Compare to Running?” in which she compares the two sports in terms of positives and negatives. Nice to get a little attention from the Times.

Racewalking Tips

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Take a clinic! If you are just getting started, there is no substitute for learning early from a real racewalking coach. I am not a coach. None of the tips on this page are original to me. But I have used them all while working on my racewalking form over the past ten years. I hope you will find some information here that will help you.

Stand up straight
. Studies of elite racewalkers show that most walk straight up or, if bent forward, only very, very slightly, and from the ankles, not the waist. A good yoga trick for standing up straight is to imagine making your shoulder blades slide down your back.

Relax your shoulders. Arms should fall naturally down to waist level when held horizontally at your sides.

Use a vigorous arm movement. The importance of a powerful arm movement to racewalking cannot be overemphasized! Most of your arm movement is behind you. When your hands are in front of your chest they come up near your sternum, just a few inches in front of your body. When your elbows are extended to the back, your fists end up a little behind your hips. As your arms move forward and back, they should brush against your shirt. Lock your elbows at about 90 degrees. Imagine your arms swinging in a pendulum motion from a pin through the middle of each shoulder. Emphasis should be on the pull back part of the swing. It's not just a swing; it's a pump. Popping strongly back with the arm on one side pops the hip on the other side strongly forward.
Flip your forward foot up and land slightly to the outside of your heel, with your toes right down in front of your body. In practice, it is so close that it feels almost as though you are landing straight down, rather than out in front. Most of the foot and leg action in racewalking is behind the body. Landing too far out in front will cause your knees to bend. Land heel down, toes up to lock the knee straight.

Rotate your hips. A coach points out that the best way to work on a strong hip rotation is to concentrate on the hip pulling back, rather than the one thrusting forward on the other side. Try saying, “pull! pull! pull!” as you pull each hip back. Your hip rotation adds to the length of your stride behind your body, not out in front. Only about 30% of the racewalker’s stride length is in front of his body; about 70% is behind. So keep your emphasis on that pull back. A strong hip pull-back powers a strong pop forward on the other side.

Hip drop. As each foot lands, it is supporting all your weight while your other foot is off the ground, moving forward. Therefore, if your hips are relaxed, the hip on the side where the foot is off the ground will drop a little. This is the racewalker’s “hip drop” and it is something you want, although not something to force. There is a drill to help this along that you can do everyday in front of your mirror and before training. Stand flat-footed, keeping your heels on the ground, arms at your sides, and pump your knees forward and back, allowing your hip to drop on each side when that knee is bent. Watch your waistline dip up and down on each side. Add racewalking arm motion. This will help your hips to relax and drop more, helping you get that “racewalker’s roll” going.

Foot speed. The essence of modern racewalking is a very quick foot cadence. What you want is a quick, staccato series of “hops” -- a “pop-pop-pop”.

To increase the length of your stride, try to keep your rear-moving leg straight from heel down to toe-off. How straight you can keep that leg and how long that stride behind your body is will depend a lot on how flexible you are.

Your push forward off that back toe comes from strong ankle movement. Your ankles go through their entire range of motion, from toes about 30 degrees up with the heel down in front to toes down and the heel up as you push off from your big toe in back.

The forward-moving leg should bend at the knee. Your foot stays very close to the ground as it drives forward, then flips into a toe-up position right before you plant your heel and begin your sweep back on that side.

Modern racewalking technique usually incorporates a slight “flight phase” in which both feet are off the ground but this is legal because it is too short-lived to be seen with the naked eye.

“Walking” vs. “Running” Style. If you look at others racewalking, on the trails or in video, you are likely to see two distinctly different styles. One is a flat-footed, “hikey”, walking-based, version. The other is an off-the-toes, “hopping”, running-based version. Both are within the rules but the latter is what all high-level competitive racewalkers do and it’s what all racewalkers who strive for faster times will want to learn, asap, if they did not start out that way.

“Walking style” feels flat-footed, closer to the ground, pulling back against the ground. “Running style” comes from a quick “pop-pop-pop” motion, a “hop” off the toes that gets your feet on and off the ground very quickly, as though you were springing forward over hot coals.

Learning from the run. A beginning racewalker can start by running, then converting the run to a racewalk. Try alternating running and racewalking, over and over, five to ten seconds each. You will probably want to run on your forefeet, not heel-first, in order to cleanly differentiate the run from the racewalk. This is an excellent way to work on getting out of the flat-footed racewalking habit if that is the way you learned early on. You will find that, over time, you will incorporate elements of your running into your racewalking, so that racewalking becomes more like “running with rules” than walking. That’s what you want.

Using quick bursts. A coach points out that a racewalker who wants high foot speed over an entire race needs to learn to do it for a few seconds first. You have to train your muscles and nerves to do this thing. As your quick-stepping feels more natural, work on going longer and longer with it. So, either as interval training or just during regular racewalks, try doing short bursts using the fastest “quick step” you can do while remaining “legal”.

For racewalking, you should have flexible, lightweight shoes with “zero-drop” heels, meaning that the soles are flat. If you are a beginning racewalker and you are trying to get started in a pair of heavy, high-heeled stability shoes, you have two strikes against you. The weight and inflexibility keeps you from actively moving your feet through their entire arc and the high heel makes it difficult if not impossible to land with your front leg straight. Yet, because there are so few racewalkers in this country, almost no shoes specifically designed for racewalking are sold here. But that’s really no problem because there are plenty of “racing flats” designed for fast running out there, and many of them work just fine.

Fit & Lean

We live in an incredibly unhealthy food environment. Most of us are ignorant of nutrition and way too fond of hedonistic self-indulgence. The food industry takes advantage of our weakness by concocting addictive foods out of sweets, fats and salt that most people cannot resist. Then it pushes all that bad food on us with a massive, relentless propaganda campaign. Becoming lean and staying that way in this atmosphere is extremely difficult, even for the most self-disciplined of us.

When I was in college, I weighed as much as 240 pounds but I managed to slowly but surely shed the extra weight and then keep it off for most of the last 40+ years. As I write this, at age 72, my BMI is 19.4.

I have tried many of the diet approaches that have come along over the years. I was on the Atkins Diet bandwagon, back in the 1970’s, when most people thought it was the devil’s work. Now, it’s thought to be a reasonably sane approach. I had great success with calorie restriction as laid out by Roy Walford, M.D. in “Beyond the 120-Year Diet”. But just watching every calorie every hour of every day is a hard row to hoe and not many people are ever going to stick with that. Eventually, I found myself backsliding and had to move on to other methods.

In recent years, intermittent fasting has become my primary method for staying fit and lean. I strongly recommend that you investigate this way of eating. For me, it has been the easiest method I have ever tried. At this time, I am eating only the equivalent of one large meal, all healthy food, spread between 2P and 6P each day. I am only significantly hungry for about an hour each day prior to my eating period. I racewalk, run and do resistance training 3 days a week but I think eating right with intermittent fasting is as important to my health as any of those activities. I think it works so well for weight loss because A. limiting eating time limits calorie intake and B. you are not often hungry. It’s not hard to eat less than 2000 calories a day if you are only eating during a short portion of the day and you are only eating nutritious food rather than calorie-dense junk. Take a look at this March 6, 2016 article, Fasting Diets are Gaining Acceptance, in the New York Times.

Books:
I suggest you check out Dr. Robert Lustig’s book, "Fat Chance". He documents the politics and science behind the fat epidemic of the last 30 years. In "The FastDiet" by Michael Mosley and Mimi Spencer, intermittent fasting is at the center of their approach to healthy eating and weight loss. Another helpful book on this subject is "The IF Diet 2014" by Robert Skinner. He gives you three ways to do intermittent fasting, including the one I like best, the “Thirds” version, where you restrict all your eating to one eight-hour period every day, for example, 11A-7P. (I cut that eating period in half, to 4 hours.) While some of these authors will tell you that you can “eat what you want” if you are doing intermittent fasting, you will get much better results, obviously, if you get in the habit of eating only good food. I recommend the book “Sugar Busters” as an good place to start reading on this subject. This next one is not a diet book but it includes some excellent tips on how to change your eating habits: “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big” by Scott Adams, the Dilbert cartoonist.

Be wary of extravagant claims and promises in diet books! Pick and choose skeptically from the advice given in any diet book. Often included in order to sell the book is a magical promise, usually some version of “calories don’t count”. But, sadly, they do. Unbiased studies seem to prove that, again and again. In the end, it mostly comes down to taking in fewer calories than you burn, eating good food and exercising. And then finding a way to keep doing that for the rest of your life, instead of going back to burgers, fries and Coca-Cola after a few months. Only a tiny percentage of people manage to get lean and stay that way.

Their “secret” is habit management! Eating good food instead of bad food, eating intermittently instead of constantly feeding, getting out to racewalk or run or getting into the gym regularly are all just good habits instead of bad. Once you establish a good habit, then that eventually becomes as compelling as the old bad habit it replaced. Usually, it only takes 2-3 weeks of perseverance to change a habit. Really solidifying the change takes longer, but those first few weeks are the hardest part. People who maintain healthy lifestyles over many years have made that happen by actively managing their habits. It also helps if, once you get fit and lean, you become a fanatic about it.

There’s a lot working against you. When you lose weight, your body metabolism changes in order to pork you back up. There is the aforementioned massive, relentless propaganda campaign from the food industry to deal with, not to mention everyday temptations from family and co-workers, plus our evolved built-in desire to grab every morsel before it escapes. And plain laziness. But I think many people can get past all this if they can drudge up the will to first educate themselves about the problem and its solutions and then proceed to create new habits. The reward for putting in the effort is enormous, even if it’s nothing more than the way you feel when you look in the mirror — and it’s actually much, much more than that!