My Racewalk Failure
Written by Administrator   
Monday, 02 August 2010 14:04
Little Rocky & Charlie Duane

Is racewalking for everyone?

This short critique holds that present racewalk competition rules promote a stylized form of running to the exclusion of valid kinds of walking. If genuine walking competition be the object, then clearly state that one foot or other MUST always be ON the ground, and that both feet MUST NOT be OFF the ground together.  Additional qualifications governing a straight leg or bent knee won't be necessary.

My friends in the racewalk community need not take this critique as a slam. They know that I have volunteered for and promoted racewalking. This critique is simply a way of clarifying a healthy question. Are racewalk competition rules suitable for everyone? I think the answer is "yes" for people in the racewalk community because they walk naturally with a straight leg.

The answer may vary for others. Exercisers who naturally transfer weight in their stride without a fully straightened leg should read the fine print about racewalking. If you can adapt to the racewalk style almost immediately, then enjoy yourself.  Otherwise, watch your step.  See photo analysis of elite racewalking below.

A hiker's perspective

A former long-distance hiker who routinely walked 20 to 30 miles per day on mountain trails and interstate highways, I am physically unfit for racewalking.  The technique I used to walk 50 miles in a day is disqualified in racewalking. My regular walk with the family dogs is also disqualified.

Mount Katahdin, Maine Cap Gaspé, Quebec Key West, Florida Coastline walk

Racewalking has two rules, the second of which requires you to land on a straight leg. Three judged infractions of this rule disqualify you from a competition. Since my straightened leg appears to have a slight bend at the knee, I am judged illegal at any pace, even a casual walking speed.

My efforts to train for racewalking failed spectacularly. Exercises to lengthen my hamstrings produced spasms that caused me to buckle over after car rides. Sore hips afflicted me to the point where I wondered if the pain would become chronic. Finally I tore a hamstring. Admittedly the hamstring tear happened on the tennis court, so I can only suggest that racewalking predisposed me to injury in that instance.  (9-1-2010 MRI indicated tedinopathy and bursitis, not a tear.)

Why only a single style?

To me, the straight-leg rule specifies one style of walking to the exclusion of others. If you are double-jointed or have trained your hips for flexibility during your growing years, then your natural walking style may be compatible with the second racewalk rule. Then you can build technique or skills on your natural gait.

If you hyperextend your knee for the proper appearance as I did, then racewalking may predispose you to injury. I think you should be able build upon your own natural style, and become more efficient as opportunity allows. Just as tennis permits you play in a style that avoids tennis elbow, the racewalk sport should permit you to walk in a way that avoids chronic injury.

The second racewalk rule intends to rule out running, but it merely enforces a single style. Some walkers with purposely bent knees may gain an advantage by using the quadriceps muscle above the knee, using a technique which is difficult to sustain over any distance. To me this variation in style doesn't matter, provided that there is always one foot on the ground.

One consistent rule for various styles

Notice that I stated, "always one foot on the ground." Almost everyone instinctively knows that running occurs when both feet leave the ground. You can observe the loss of contact with the ground when dogs transition from a walk to a trot, when four paws leave the ground. Yet this obvious distinction is lost in the racewalk sport.

Racewalk rule number one should state the obvious, that any loss of contact with the ground constitutes running. The walker knows when it happens, the judges suspect it, and stop action photography proves that trotting is running. The racewalk sport permits this open secret by incorporating the phrase "visible to the human eye" in rule number one.

The reality of the loophole in rule number one is that the human eye sees at the rate of 30 frames per second, the same as ordinary video. A single frame taken at 1/30 of a second does not capture fast action, which leaves the human eye guessing where a half-inch is concerned. For comparison, sports photographs are taken at 1/250 of a second or faster.

Let racewalking be for walking

If the honor system were used in racewalking as it is in golf, and the rule governing loss of contact with the ground were enforced with video technology available in the 1970s, running in the racewalk sport would be eliminated. However, at present, elite racewalkers typically leave the ground by 1/8 to 3/4 of an inch without detection.

In sum, the racewalk sport, and the racewalk rules, promote a style of stiff-legged trotting with fast-moving legs, in a style which simulates walking even when losing contact with the ground. If I were the commissioner of the sport, I would open competition to all styles of walking and punish running infractions with time penalties rather than disqualification.

In that way competitions could include people who walk for health as well as those genetic exceptions who have greater pain tolerance. It should be noted that Edward Payson Weston, an all-time great walker in competition and in health, would have been disqualified for a "bent knee."

A simple solution

Let a scientist devise a sensor to go on the shoes of the elite racewalker. Perhaps the sensor has terminals on the front and back of each shoe, connected to a computer chip. The computer chip then emits a signal when any part of the foot touches the ground, and it stops emitting the signal when the foot has no contact with the ground.

Therefore when running occurs, the shoes would emit an intermittent beeping sound, "Beep, beep, beep," and so on. When walking occurs, the shoes would emit a single, unbroken "Beeeeeeeep" for the duration of the entire competition.

If the honor system does not work, if judging by eye cannot  be accurate, and if use of high-speed video is too difficult, then consider the shoe sensor as a way to eliminate guesswork. This strategy can be used for sprints or time trials over short distances such as 100 meters.


~ Charlie Duane

Illustrations and captions follow


The photographic case for consistent rules and regulation

The illustrations below consist of details taken from news coverage of contemporary racewalk competitions.  These details show the feet of elite racewalkers in action.  Since sports photographs are taken at shutter speeds at least five times faster than the human eye can see, these illustrations reveal what judges do not detect in live action.


racewalker A

Bent knee and double-support

Racewalker A has a bent knee just before landing on the heel of his forward leg.  According to the second racewalk rule, this leg should be straight when the heel meets the ground.  Although this closeup reveals a possible infraction, it demonstrates a safe way to minimize impact on a hard surface.

This example also represents the double-support phase of walking.  Racewalker A will certainly land on the advancing foot before picking up the trailing foot.  Both feet touch the ground briefly during every stride - the alternative is for both feet to leave the ground, which is running.


racewalker B

Borderline evidence of running

Racewalker B has already pushed off with the trailing foot.  The toe of the back foot touches, but has not lost contact with the ground.  At this moment the forward heel should be meeting the ground, but instead there is a gap of perhaps two finger widths below that shoe. This photograph suggests, but does not prove that Racewalker B strides about a finger width above the ground.  A photograph taken a micro-second later would tell more.






racewalker B3

racewalker B2

Clear evidence of running, 1&2

Racewalker B has both feet off the ground in both photographs.  The shadows normally showing beneath the feet are amplified by the sheen of water on the street.  The water was sprayed in the air due to hot temperatures, creating a glassy, somewhat reflective surface.









racewalker A2

Simulated walking while running, 3

Close examination shows that both feet in this photo are OFF the ground.  The rear toe has left the ground by about a 1/2-inch before the forward heel lands.  The double-support phase essential to walking is merely simulated.  Racewalker A exhibits the "flight phase" openly promoted in racewalk textbooks.  A flight phase of 1/8- to 1/2-inch off the ground is considered to be undetectable by the human eye.  I call it a trot, a type of run.





racewalker C

Simulated walking while running, 4

The trailing toe of Racewalker C has left the ground by at least 1/4 inch while the heel of the leading foot has at least 1/2 inch distance to close before landing.

The racewalker who best simulates walking during the flight phase has a competitive advantage due to a longer stride with less braking action.  It can be argued that record-setting performances at the elite level depend on running disguised as walking.


News photos of racewalkers breaking the tape at the finish line (not shown) also suggest the absence of the double-support phase essential to walking.  Taken a stride or two after the finish, they do not belong in this series.

To reiterate the main point, the top photo, including the bent knee and double-support phase, represents a safer way of walking.  Let there be only one consistent, enforced rule - one foot or the other always on the ground. Otherwise you have running. Let the sport welcome more people rather than disqualify them.  Regarding the health and durability of the walker, the section below on Edward Payson Weston argues for a style outlawed by racewalking.



Edward Payson Weston and the bent knee

An extraordinary example of walking for a lifetime was set by Edward Payson Weston, who advocated walking without a straight leg.

He originally gained attention by walking 50-plus miles per day to shake the hand of President Abraham Lincoln.  He pioneered the 6-day walking race by establishing the "impossible" benchmark of 500 miles in that time.  He later stunned the world by walking and trotting to a 550-mile record in a "go as you please" race at the age of 40, when he was considered "washed up."  At the age of 44 he walked 5,000 miles in 100 days in England, which he regarded as his "star accomplishment."  In his later years he resumed cross-country hiking in the USA, besting the times of his youth.  In a challenge to the ages, Weston at age 71 walked eastwards across the USA in three calendar months in 1910 at the rate of 47 miles per hiking day.  This is just a short list of the things he accomplished to the astonishment of physicians during his 100,000-mile career.

Weston sashHe walked on indoor tracks in front of crowds for exhibition and prize money.  He walked on outdoor roads, through mud, snow, and under the stars.  At the completion of cross-country walks, he would dress in a suit and be greeted by crowds lining the streets for miles.

Edward Payson Weston definitively stated that the bent knee is more natural and that landing on a straight leg is unnatural.

For more details, see these links:

Last Updated on Saturday, 04 September 2010 07:11
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