Many years ago, I learned to race walk at a weekend workshop in a little place outside Chicago called the Heartland Spa, and it changed my life. Until I met Olympic race walker Augie Hirt, I was a runner — a slow, lumbering, back-of-the-pack runner. When I discovered his sport, I found mine.
As a runner, I felt like a land-locked loon. When I race walk, I feel like a jaguar — sleek, fast, nimble. I love the hip wiggle, the heel strike, the way you straighten your front leg as you stride forward, twisting your torso from side to side. Sure, it looks a little goofy. So what? Ever watched snowshoe baseball? Wear a hat, I tell the people whom I've taught to race walk.
Is it better than running? I think so, but you can't tell that to a runner. Race walking works your lower body and your upper body, and it doesn't pound your knee joints the way running does. It also works miracles on that embarrassing area at the back of your thighs where cottage cheese tends to accumulate.
I can't teach you how to race walk in this column — you have to learn it from a live human — but I do want to tell you some things you can do to take your own walking program to a higher, more athletic level:
SHORTER, FASTER. Any style of walking is OK when you're just getting started, but there comes a time when you need to add some zip to your step. So that means taking longer strides, right? Wrong. Take shorter, quicker ones. That's the way to go faster.
KEEP YOUR HEAD UP. This small change will make a big difference. Walking with your head down is a common mistake. It can strain your back and shoulder muscles, and you'll tire out quickly because it hinders efficient breathing. You are remembering to breathe, aren't you?
MOVE YOUR ARMS. You'll be surprised how much more powerful your stride gets once you bring your arms into play. Don't hunch your shoulders or tense your arms. Just allow them to swing in a relaxed and natural way in opposition to your legs. Keep your elbows tucked into your sides, arms bent at about a 90-degree angle. Don't clench your fists. Keep your hands loose. The more you pump those arms, the better workout you'll get.
WORK THOSE HIPS. Someday you may want to find your own Augie Hirt-style coach and learn the official race walking technique: no bent knees, one foot on the ground at all times. Meanwhile, for power walking, allow your hips to extend forward with each stride. (It feels like your legs start at your waist; think Halle Berry.) As your right leg comes forward, so should your right hip bone, in a natural rotation. Then your left. Race walkers get a lot of speed, forward thrust and funny looks from this exaggerated hip wiggle. It takes practice and patience, but once you get it, it's yours forever.
PULL IN YOUR TUMMY. As you walk, be aware of pulling in your abdominal muscles and your glutes, your butt muscles. Think about pulling them forward under your hips, causing a bit of a pelvic tilt. Walking this way — head up, stomach pulled in, glutes engaged — is a fantastic way to help tighten those areas that tend to get loose and flabby as we age. Good form makes for great results.
GO FOR THE ROLL. There's no wrong way to walk, but the right way, for maximum efficiency and power, involves walking heel-ball-toe. Focus on landing on your heel, your toes flexed to the sky, then roll through the foot, using the big toe to give your body a powerful push forward. That way all your leg muscles — from your calves to your glutes — are awake and involved. Walking this way definitely makes for a better workout, but don't overdo it. Increase your time and intensity gradually, or your shins may start to talk back to you.
"If God had wanted people to run, he wouldn't have invented race walking." — Rick Williams
Marilynn Preston — fitness expert, personal trainer and speaker on healthy lifestyle issues — is the creator of Energy Express, the longest-running syndicated fitness column in the country. She has a website, http://marilynnpreston.com and welcomes reader questions, which can be sent to MyEnergyExpress@aol.com.