The World Athletics championship opened on Friday 15 July 2022 in Oregon, USA. As I’m based in the UK, I’m not going to see much of it live as, while some events start in the evening in my time-zone, the majority take place after midnight.
What I caught on Day 1 began with the field events of hammer and high jump along with a couple of track events, the Mixed 4x400M relay and preliminary heats of the Men’s 100M. But the real highlight was away from the stadium where we were treated to the Women’s 20KM walk!
Race walking is a sport which is somewhat derided and I am being slightly sarcastic when I say it’s a highlight. Yet, I have a fascination with all things sporty and what I can learn from them and I’ve actually watched race walking at some of the past Olympics. Given it’s similarity to running it’s interesting to dig into the details and analyse.
Race walking at the elite level is surprisingly fast and there are two event distances – 20 and 50km. A little bit shorter than half marathon (21.1km) and longer than a marathon (42.2km). It’s only in the past decade the women have been allowed to compete in the longer walking distance.
There are two basic rules that differentiate it from running.
- You must always have one foot in contact with the ground as judged by the naked eye. This “naked eye” caveat was instituted in recent years because with the advent of high definition television pictures, it became clear everyone was lifting off and travelling through the air!
- When the front foot lands the leg must stay straight until the body passes over it. The knee cannot bend.
Breaking either of these rules results in a warning red card and if three are received, the walker has to take a penalty stop of 1-minute per 10K of race distance. If they break the rules a fourth time they are disqualified. However, there’s a twist as in the last 100 metres, a walker may be disqualified even if they haven’t had any previous cards which avoids them gaming the system and breaking into a sprint at the line! The drama of the race begins to occur as competitors accumulate penalties or risk everything to go that bit faster.
The commentators made the point that tactically there’s not much you can do in race-walking. Its limitations, as I shall explain, means there is an inherent top speed. It’s not like distance running where you might decide to conserve your energy by sitting behind an opponent and then sprinting for the line!
By always having one foot in contact with the ground, a walker’s stride length is limited by the length of their legs. As one foot leaves the ground, the other must already be touching it.
This begins to highlight a big difference with running where runners can push off with each step and travel through the air. They get a longer stride length by doing this – as much as 2.70m for world class male sprinters and almost 2m for distance runners. The average man walking along the street usually has a stride of around 90cm and when I measured my biggest possible step it was a highly uncomfortable, full stretch 1.35m.
In his book Mathletics, John D. Barrow a professor at Cambridge University analyses how race walkers achieve their speeds and concludes that to achieve the world record pace, it requires the walker to have a leg length of 2.3m. Basically they have to be leaving the ground to go as fast as they do! What the walkers are good at is eliminating any up and down motion. Their centre of gravity always remains level and all effort goes into propelling themselves horizontally forwards.
This means their cadence – the number of steps taken per minute – is a big factor in how fast they walk. The best in the race I watched were hitting a cadence of around 200 steps per minute but again this has limitations. Sprinters achieve very high cadences of around 250 steps per minute but they can only hold onto this for a minute. Middle distance runners tend to be over 200-220 steps and are closer to the race walkers in this respect.
But it’s a key difference between running and race-walking that middle distance runners achieve high cadence by ‘shortening the lever”. When their back foot leaves the ground it comes up to almost kick their backside. This shortening allows the rear leg to travel under the body quicker than if it were staying straight. This is basic mechanics that occurs with the pendulum of a clock speeding up or slowing down depending on its length and which you can easily test by swinging a weight on a piece of string.
What a tall walker gains in stride length, they lose in cadence because their long levers move slower.
Watching a racewalker, you immediately notice they all employ a distinctive wiggling method with the arms notably swinging. The hands stay low to keep the centre of gravity low and help avoid losing contact with the ground.
The reason for the wiggle is that it maximises the length of each stride. It involves rotation of the hips which is counterbalanced by the shoulders rotating. Unfortunately, if you go watch any amateur distance race you will seem many runners at the slower end of the field using a similar technique. This isn’t entirely a surprise as many amateur runners are going at paces slower than race walkers.
Together these factors begin to explain why many amateur runners aren’t achieving better times. Firstly they do too much ‘wiggling’ – their hips and shoulders rotate around the body. While this creates a longer stride, it often causes a heel strike which at best creates braking forces to slow them, but at worst may cause injury. Neither is desirable.
A secondary consequence of hip rotation is that it doesn’t cause the trail leg to swing up which would make their running more efficient. All they’re doing is penduluming their legs back and forth.
Now there are running methods which encourage runners to deliberately lift the trailing leg but I don’t advocate that, it should happen naturally with good mechanics. How far the trail leg swings up is dependent on how fast you’re running. But certainly if you’ve got excessive hip rotation going on, it will be harder to hit the top speeds that enable it to happen.
The most impressive part of race walking is the speed – they are not just ambling down to the shops to pick up a pint of milk. In Friday night’s, 20km walk the first kilometre was completed in 4:20 – the equivalent of a 21:40 parkrun! In Imperial terms it’s 6:58/mile and they went through five miles in under 35 minutes.
The Chinese women, Shijie Qieyang and Hong Liu started out quickly but were eventually caught and overtaken by Kimberly Garcia Leon and then Poland’s Katarzyna Zdzieblo. After 1:26:58 it was Garcia Leon who claimed the first gold medal of these World Championships and Peru’s first ever.
Later on the men’s race took place won by Japan’s Toshikazu Yamnishi in 1:19:07. I didn’t stay up to watch it!
Both of these times were within three minutes of the world records which are:
- Men’s 20K – 1:16:36 – Yusuke Suzuki (Japan) – March 15, 2015
- Men’s 50K – 3:32:33 – Yohann Diniz (France) – August 15, 2014
- Women’s 20K – 1:23:39 – Elena Lashmanova (Russia) – June 9, 2018
- Women’s 50K – 3:59:13 – Liu Hong (China) – March 9, 2019
Putting those numbers into a more familiar format we find the
- Men’s 20K – a pace of 3:50/km or 6:10/mile – the equivalent of a 19:09 parkrun or 1:21 half marathon.
- Women’s 20K – a pace of 4:11/km or 6:44/mile – equating to a 20:54 parkrun or 1:28 half.
- Men’s 50K – a pace of 4:15/km or 6:51/mile – equating to a 21:15 parkrun or 2:59 marathon.
- Women’s 50K – a pace of 4:47/km or 7:42/mile – equating to a 23:55 parkrun or 3:22 marathon.
Many amateur runners would be happy to achieve these sort of times. While race-walking is often spoken of in insulting terms, the efforts and results of the athletes are more than impressive.