Running not your cup of tea, try Racewalking instead says Capt Seshadri
The glamour of the marathon has possibly relegated another gruelling track event to a lower position in the pecking order. While ‘pedestrian’ is a word usually associated with slow movement, there is a term not so well known, although the implications are far from slowness: ‘pedestrianism’, or its better-known synonym, racewalking.
This sport reportedly took roots sometime in the mid 1800s with a set of rules that typified and differentiated it from running. In this case, one foot must be in contact with the ground at all times, unlike both feet in the air during the running stride. Finding increasing participation over the decades, racewalking has now evolved into an Olympic and World Championship event, with races ranging across different distances, although the 20km and 50 km are probably the most popular. In some countries, there are even competitions from a short 3,000 metres to as long as 100 km. In the modern era, the sport has been dominated by walkers from Russia and China, but now facing intense competition from Latin Americans.
The intricacy of racewalking is in the length of the stride and the rhythm, or cadence. While the former is short, in order to keep both feet on the ground, the latter could best compare with the stride of an 800 or 1,500 metre runner. And there is much more to the sport than just these two. Racewalkers typically keep low to the ground and pump their arms with the elbows almost tucked into the hips. This pelvic rotation results in achieving the best momentum, sometimes as close as 15 km per hour, while adhering to the rule of both feet on the ground. Judges rely purely on observation and usually warn participants before disqualifying them for running.
In England, as early as in 1866, the first racewalking championship was won by one John Chambers, judged to have been fair to the ‘heel and toe’ method of contact with the ground. Today, it has developed into a state of art event, with a training regime on par with the toughest long distance runs, having been an integral part of the Olympics since 1904. But it was a century later, in 2003, that the IAAF thought it fit to organise a World Race Walking Challenge, a series of walks held in different venues across the world and culminating in a World Final offering USD 200,000 of prize money.
Racewalking employs more muscle groups than regular walking, which means you have a higher exercise intensity, similar to that in running. It is a vigorous-intensity activity while normal brisk walking is a moderate-intensity activity. Your heart and lungs will be working much harder. Maria Michta-Coffey, a Polish origin American, and the fastest US woman racewalker sums it up nicely: “Most people who’ve ever seen racewalking in action assume it’s ‘just walking.’ But there is much more to the event. And no—even if it appears a racewalker is running, he or she is not. For us, racewalking is technical because there are rules, so it’s slower than running. (But) You’re still pushing your body to the limit and maximizing efficiency as best as possible.”
For the statisticians, the Olympics, has three racewalking events: a men’s and women’s 20 km and a men’s 50 km. While the men’s 50 km was introduced in 1932, the shorter version came about in 1956. The women’s event started as a 10 km race in 1992 at Barcelona, and the 20 km was introduced as late as in 2000 at Sydney. London 2012 saw all the racewalking records shattered, by Chen Ding of China in the men’s 20 km, Jarred Talent in the 50 km and Elena Lashmanova among the women, setting a world record in racewalking in the Olympics for the first time ever.
So, if you don’t feel up to running, racewalk. You might just surprise yourself at the effort.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Capt Seshadri Sreenivasan is a former armed forces officer with over 30 years experience in marketing. He also a consulting editor with a leading publishing house. He is a co-author of the best selling biography of astronaut Sunita Williams.