Ron Laird's most successful race walking years spanned four decades, a period in which he accumulated 65 individual national championships. A four-time Olympian, Laird was the Pan-Am 20K walk gold medal winner. He set 81 American records at distances from one kilometer to 25 miles over his lengthy career, and was the first race walker inducted into the National Track & Field Hall of Fame. This article is a modified and expanded excerpt from his book, The Art of Fast Walking.
The key to fast and legal race walking is correct technique and a lot of continual effort. The hamstring and hip muscles are the prime movers of the race walker. The combination of straight-leg pulling and hip-roll pushing allow the walker to achieve and maintain a good stride length and the speeds needed for high levels of fitness and racing success on road and track. It's that dropping down and forceful pushing back into the hip while pulling the straightened leg back that gives the event its unique hip motion. The hips act like shock absorbers by making your walking a series of low-impact steps. Study the figures below to observe correct body posture and arm swing. Follow the stripe on the side of the shorts to see how the hips push the walker forward, and how they turn back and forth to help increase stride length. The ankle and toes may also provide a final forward push. If the rear leg is snapped away just before the front leg's heel touches down, it can easily cause the fast-moving race walker to break contact with the ground and gain a few illegal inches through the air with each step. Keep your knee and foot close to the ground as you use your hip pushing to help thrust your free leg forward. Too high a knee drive or a "prancing" action can also cause loss of contact with the ground when race walking fast.
Overstriding while moving quickly is fatiguing and can also cause you to float up and off the ground enough to be detected by competent race walk judges. Take steps that are quick and comfortable for your body structure and its present level of fitness. Try to always keep your neck and face muscles relaxed. Keep your body and head in an upright position with hips directly underneath you. Any forward lean needs to come from your ankles, not your waist. Bending at the waist can push your hips out behind you so much that it can cause you to start using a hiking technique where hip rolling is restricted and bent-knee walking replaces correct straight-leg action. Always work on a posture and balance that constantly and efficiently move you quickly forward. Your toes and ankles are used to push you straight ahead, not upward. Your feet should land along or on top of a straight line with toes pointed directly forward. Correct and continual hip roll will help you to roll along the outside of your foot from heel pull to toe push-off. A little toeing out is okay if it feels efficient and helps you achieve the best pulling angle for your feet and legs. Your arms are always held at a 90° angle and pumped vigorously. Swing your hand to about the midpoint of your chest but no higher than breast level. Quick and strong arm pumping helps you achieve and maintain quick leg turnover. Be aware not to tighten up and hunch your shoulders during your arm pumping. Your workouts are similar to those of distance runners except you do them while always using good race walking technique. Since race walking allows you to move quickly and efficiently, and with low impact, you can take quality workouts without all the pounding to feet and legs runners constantly endure. The different ways your muscles are worked should feel strange at first, but will feel a lot more comfortable and natural after just a few weeks of conscientious training. It's normal for beginners to feel soreness in their shins and in the back of their knees until those areas get used to their new way of walking. Flexibility and strengthening exercises for hips, stomach, and hamstring muscles will always be of specific help. Beginners may find it easier to develop correct hip motion and knee straightening by first practicing them with very short steps. It's also helpful during this short-step drill to press your knee back as far as it will go at the same instant you pull your heel back and sit back into your hip. Whether you are coached or coach yourself, proper technique must always be mastered and practiced. Good racing results will require a high level of fitness, efficient and legal technique, and the discipline to push your pace in training and racing. As with all endurance sports you will need to develop concentration and learn to tolerate the discomfort that comes from long, hard efforts. Be patient and allow yourself to improve gradually. Perseverance is a must. To repeat, when the leg speed and stride length from proper hip action is combined with early leg straightening you have the basics for fast and legal race walking. Other requirements are vigorous arm pumping, good balance, flexibility, and lots of effort. Correct technique lets you move your legs quickly, but power and stamina must be developed to maintain fast leg turnover for longer and longer periods of time. You don't need special equipment, facilities, or training partners to enjoy this beneficial exercise and its cross-training advantages. Race walking is quite a natural and efficient way to move once you've learned and practiced it for a few weeks. Don't let a feeling of awkwardness or embarrassment discourage you from participating in this challenging and rewarding Olympic sport. Always work on efficient and legal technique no matter how fast or slow you race walk. This helps time and effort pass more quickly and makes you move and look better. Train consistently and wisely, and you will achieve satisfying results.
JUDGING The purpose of having race walk judges is to insure the fairness of the competition for all walkers. There are only two things the judges of race walking look for: straight-leg action, and apparent and continuous contact with the ground. The advancing foot must look like it has made contact with the ground before the toes of the rear foot have left the ground. It is during this spread-out, heel-and-toe position that race walkers break or maintain contact with the ground. Loss of contact is the toughest infraction to judge because it is difficult for the human eye to actually detect. It happens very quickly and within such small spaces. The eye cannot focus on simultaneous heel-and-toe contact while the feet are moving so rapidly. But when the feet start to look like they are floating or bouncing off the ground, the judges must take action. All judging decisions are made as seen by the unaided eye (glasses are fine). No camera or video equipment may be used for judging during or after a race. Even though the human eye is not 100 per cent perfect to judge a race walker's contact with the ground, this is the method the sport has decided to use over the years. It has proven to be the fairest way to control the event. Bent-knee race walking promotes the incorrect use of the large quadriceps muscles to help thrust the walker forward and can also cause loss of contact. You want to land with a straight leg, leaving the quadriceps relaxed, and smoothly pull and push the ground back underneath and behind you with your hamstring and hip muscles. A strong heel pull as soon as the heel touches will also help to straighten the knee joint. Bent-leg quadriceps pushing and leaping up and over the ground is what runners do. When a race walking judge sees a competitor in danger of breaking one or both race walking rules, he/ she will call out the violation to the walker and at the same time show the competitor a yellow and black sign. On opposite sides of this sign are the symbols for loss of contact and bent knee(s). These "in danger of" calls are known as cautions. Cautions alone never disqualify a walker from a race.
If a race walker is obviously losing contact with the ground and/ or landing with bent knee(s), the judge will write a disqualification (red card) on the walker without telling him or her about it. It takes a red card from three different judges to disqualify a competitor. Only the head judge has the authority to notify the walker that he or she has been disqualified. This notification is done verbally and by showing the walker a red paddle. When in doubt, the judges are to give the benefit of doubt to the walker. To repeat, race walking judges are only concerned with knee straightening and what looks like proper contact with the ground. Competitors need to put more mental and physical effort into maintaining correct technique during their faster workouts and races to keep them from getting into trouble with the judges.
For a well-illustrated book containing more information on race walking technique, coaching, training, footwear, flexibility exercises, judging, other resources, and a section on cross-training benefits for serious runners, send $19.95, plus $3.00 shipping/handling to Ron Laird, 4706 Diane, Drive, Ashtabula, OH 44004. (440) 998-1371.