Race walking a great low-impact workout

Nicole Milstead

Kate Kanaley-Miller, 70, recently competed in the Chicagoland triathlon, and placed second in her division. Part of her regimen that keeps her in shape includes race walking. Unlike running, race walking is low-impact yet still uses 95 percent of the body’s muscles.

Kanaley-Miller of Springfield, Ill., trains with the race walkers in Abe’s Army, a group that trains together for a 10K (6.2 miles) race, Abe’s Amble.

Race walker group leader Brent Bohlen, 58, of Springfield, says there are two basic rules of race walking: one foot must be in contact with the ground at all times, and the forward leg must be straight at the knee until it is vertical under the body. Race walking, an Olympic sport for 100 years, is not to be confused with “speed walking” or “power walking.”

Bohlen knows the form is difficult for beginners to learn, so the group takes it slow to focus on technique before picking up speed. 

Many race walkers are former runners who took up the sport because of injuries or bad joints. It also is popular with many people who no longer can run because of knee pain. And still others take part in it to get fit and into shape.

“I walked into my yoga class, and my instructor asked, ‘What are you doing?’” said Pam Lowry, 61, of Springfield. “I have lost about 16 pounds, and I’m losing inches around my waist. I can tell the difference in my clothes.”

Race walking also is ideal for those looking for a long-term activity, which suits Mary Lentz fine.

“I wanted to do something I could continue for many years,” said the 24-year-old Springfield woman. 

The race walker group of about 20 meets up with the rest of Abe’s Army, 250 total, at 5:45 p.m. Tuesdays at Lincoln Park pavilion from May until the 31st Abe’s Amble 10K on Aug. 17. Another group of more experienced runners meet at the Illinois State Fairgrounds Happy Hallow area.

By the time the 13-week training program is finished, most will have mastered both the technique and speed needed for competitive race walking.

Here are a handful of race walking tips from Brent Bohlen:

Technique:

- Bend your leg at the knee to swing your leg forward, and keep your advancing foot low to the ground.

- Flexing your ankle and toe upward as much as possible on your lead leg will help you straighten your knee before your heel touches the ground.

- When the heel of your lead-leg foot touches the ground, don’t let the foot “slap” down against the ground. 

Posture:

- Hold your body erect with your head up and eyes looking ahead. Don’t look down at your feet, and don’t lean or bend forward.

- Bend your elbows at about 90 degrees. Your hands should go from just in front of mid chest on the front swing to just beyond the back on the back swing.

- Keep you shoulders relaxed and down, not scrunched up against your neck.

Don’t Forget to Stretch:

- Stretch after your muscles and tendons are warmed up. Make sure you stretch your hamstrings. That will help you get your leg straightened at the knee.

Shoes:

- Shoes need to be flexible and have a lower heel. Some shoes are made for race walking. Do not use running or jogging shoes, as they have too much cushioning. A lower heel will help with form.

Springfield State Journal-Register writer Nicole Milstead can be reached at 788-1532.