Walking's Wild Side

By Marian Jones   Fox News
NEW YORK — Sometimes it's harder to walk than run.

This is what racewalkers know and runners don't take time to find out: When you walk that fast, "you are putting on the brakes, and that requires a lot of work," explained walking trainer Carol Espel.

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Walking coach Stella Cashman demonstrates the technique

Some go for high-speed walking because it's easier on the joints than running, Espel said. With one foot on the ground at all times, there's less impact on the body.

Competitive racewalkers — athletes who walk in timed distance competitions without ever breaking into a run — are in fantastic shape, but skeptical runners shake their heads. How can slow be as good as fast? And it's such a silly motion — it looks like a high-tempo combination of salsa dancing and duck waddling. As a runner, I couldn't be sure until I tried superstrolling with a pro.

No Walk in the Park

I sat on a bench and watched veteran racewalking coach Stella Cashman demonstrate proper technique. She strode around keeping her front leg straight until the heel hit the ground, being sure one foot was touching the road at all times. To compensate, she held her torso forward, rolled her hips and vigorously swung bent elbows.

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The secret is in the elbows

Learning proper running form, you get used to propelling yourself forward by bending at the knee and using it to push off like a spring. It's easy to fall into a run, though, as you attempt to speed up your walking pace. In racewalking competitions, breaking form will get you disqualified by hawk-eyed judges, said Cashman, who won a bronze in the international Masters' a few years back.

The key to getting the momentum is to focus on the elbows. The more they swing back, the more the hip naturally goes forward. Posture is also important. "Stick your chest out like the prow of a ship," Cashman said as we strode side by side.

Putting all these elements together, one can get an airborne sense of forward momentum not entirely unlike the flow of a good jog.

Running vs. Racewalking

"Racewalking athletes are not the wimps some runners think they are," Cashman told me later. "With racewalking, it's not just going the distance, but making sure you do it right."

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The upper body does the work

And good physical health goes hand-in-hand with proper technique: Racewalkers get injured less often than do runners. When University of Colorado researchers compared racewalking to running and step aerobics over a 28-week period, racewalkers missed only 1.5 days due to injury while runners missed 11 days. All three sports produced similar cardiovascular fitness gains.

Since racewalking's momentum comes from the muscles of the torso, hips and back rather than the legs, Espel said, walkers get more of an upper-body workout than joggers. In recent years, some trainers have found a growing interest among baby boomers who want to stay fit without getting hurt.

"The thinking used to be that you needed to run to get a good workout," Espel said. "But there are alternate ways to get very similar or better workouts in the long term. And walking may be the way to go as we age."