World Championships – Race Walking

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.

  1. 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!
  2. 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.

The pronounced tilt of the hips and shoulders

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.

More stride length – Eliud Kipchoge

Previously I talked about the stride length of 400m hurdlers, 800m runners and 10K runners. I thought it would be interesting to have a look at Eliud Kipchoge – the world’s premier marathoner.

Kipchoge is famed for his excellent running form and economical stride and in Oct. 2019 he became the first man to run a marathon in under two hours. I found footage of the run on Youtube and watched a section from the last kilometre to calculate his stride length.

How to calculate stride length manually

You can skip past this section if you’d rather not get into the details

As we know Speed = Stride Length x Stride Frequency.  We can rearrange that as Stride Length = Speed divided by Frequency. And because Speed is actually the distance covered in a time period (e.g. miles per hour); we can convert it to a Pace (e.g. 15mph is 4min/mile because 60mins / 15 = 4).

We need to find out how fast he’s running and how many steps he’s taking in a set period to be able to calculate the stride length.


Step 1 – Watching the footage I found a section where the camera showed Kipchoge for a decent length of time; the longer the better as it gives a more accurate sample. The particular segment lasted twenty seconds.

Step 2 – I counted the number of times his left arm swings. It doesn’t matter whether you count armswings or footsteps they’re going to match. Generally though I find armswings are easier to count. I counted thirty armswings.

Step 3 – As this was a twenty second clip, I had to triple it to get the cadence for a minute (3×30 = 90). But this was only for the swing of one arm so I doubled it (90 x 2 = 180) to get the total for both arms. Given arms and legs swing at the same rate, it gives the number of steps per minute – 180. Very conveniently it’s also three steps per second.

Step 4 – The marathon was run in 1:59:40 – an average pace of 4:34/mile. I remember Kipchoge was very consistent in his pacing so I’ve got a high level of confidence that his is how quick he was covering the ground.

Now I calculate how many steps Eliud covers in his 4:34 mile. In four minutes he covers 720 steps (180×4) and then in the remaining thirty-four seconds takes another 102 (34×3) for a grand total of 822 steps per mile.

Step 5 – As a mile is 1,609 metres and we know Kipchoge takes 822 steps to cover it, it works out that his stride length is 1.96metres  (1609 / 822).

NB This final step has an implicit conversion from Imperial to Metric measuring systems. I could have gone metric earlier as I know he was running at 2:50/km, so he was taking 510 steps per km (1000/510 = 1.96) to get the same stride length.

Kipchoge’s Stride Length

If you skipped straight down here, let’s recap …. at his marathon pace of 4:34/mile, Eliud Kipchoge is taking 180 steps per minute with a stride length of 1.96 metres. What’s interesting, and defeats those people who say they have little legs, is that Kipchoge is only 1.67m tall (5’6”) – his stride is over 15% longer than he is tall.

I also found video of 18-year-old Eliud Kipchoge winning the 5000m gold at the 2003 World Championships in Paris. His running form looks a little less smooth than these days but he was still able to win in 12min52. I counted steps for one of his 400m laps close to the end of the race – he completed it in a touch under 1min05 – a pace of 4:21/mile. He took 202 steps and that works out to a stride length of 1.83 metres. Surprisingly it was shorter than he ran for a whole sub-2 marathon but may begin to explain why his form looked less smooth.

Nonetheless whichever race you look at Kipchoge’s stride length is bigger than he is tall and that’s worth thinking about.

Stride Length

Like all runners I want to get faster. How you do this is, of course, the difficult part. Having a coach or following a plan takes you through the workouts you need to do to improve speed, stamina and endurance appropriately to your event.

There are certain guidelines for what you’re trying to do; for example, 100m sprinters are working on top-end speed and trying to be as efficient with their running form as possible.  Marathon runners are training to improve their aerobic efficiency and top-end speed isn’t too important to them. Everybody in between is working on some variation between these.

Paula Radcliffe still getting air time at mile 25 of 2002 Chicago marathon

But even when you think the marathon is more about endurance than speed, you discover world class marathoners are fast. Take Paula Radcliffe, she can run 4min25 for a single mile where most parkrunners can’t even run 200 metres at this pace.

When I benchmarked my 800m last December, my peak pace was 5:02/mile. That is, of course, dependent on the accuracy of my GPS but nine years ago I was hitting 3:38/mile in my finishing sprints at parkrun. I wanted to figure out how to rebuild this.

The Formula

The simple mechanical explanation of speed is that it’s the amalgamation of how quickly you move your legs and how far you travel with each step. More commonly this is quoted as a formula of Speed = Stride Length x Stride Frequency. I first learned about this in the mid-1990s but never really thought about what to do with it.

On the stride frequency (cadence) side there’s a lot of talk about how the magic number of steps to take is 180 per minute. I’m not going to dig into that here today as it’s much discussed around the internet, only to say there is no magic number to achieve. It’s the Stride Length side I’m currently interested in.

What is Stride Length?

Around the time I learned the formula, I started to hear about how the great 400m hurdler Ed Moses had a stride length of 2.70 metres which enabled him to take thirteen steps between each hurdle.

When I looked up what a stride was it, it was defined as two steps e.g. right foot then left foot or vice versa. So by that definition your stride length would be how far you cover from when your left foot hits the ground to when it hits the ground again. That would suggest each single step by Moses was only covering 1.35 metres yet when I did the calculations that didn’t seem right.

It turns out when runners, coaches or commentators talk about stride length they’re using the term interchangeably with step length. For runners, stride length is the distance you cover with one step. If you stand with both feet together and step onto the right foot, it is the distance you’ve covered in this step.

If you’re going to try measuring it, remember to measure consistently from the heel-to-heel or toe-to-toe. Often though you can find out from the stats produced by GPS watches – if they’re capable of measuring cadence.

Garmin stats from a run – avg stride length highlighted

Elite stride length

400m hurdlers

I said that Ed Moses is famous for his 2.70 metre stride but it’s not just him. When I was watching the Tokyo Olympics over the summer, I switched onto the final of the women’s 400m hurdles. The commentators were discussing how Sydney McLaughlin – the world record holder – runs 14 steps between the hurdles until the final one when she increases to 15 steps because of fatigue shortening her stride. I found out the distance between the hurdles is thirty-five meters making her long stride is 2.50 metres and drops down to 2.35 metres when she tires. That’s big and it’s stunning.

Measure out 2.50 metres and you’ll realise why I still harboured some doubt about whether I was understanding what stride length is. Were elite runners really covering the length of a small car in one step? Or was their stride the technical ‘two step’ definition? I went looking for direct evidence.

David Rudisha – 800m

I found some decent Youtube footage of David Rudisha running the 800m at the London Olympics. It’s the race where he set a new world record. As he crossed the line he was well ahead of the rest of the field and there was a good angle on it.

And below he is one step before! It seems unimaginable how he will go from toeing off at the red triangle next to the Olympic logo and ending up on the finish line but he does.

Here’s a combined picture to make things simpler. We can see it’s quite some distance.

Rudisha is recorded as being 1.88m tall so let’s put some lines on the photo and estimate how long his stride is.

He’s not standing fully upright so the yellow line is around 1.75m. The red line is just above his knee and, fortunately as I’m the same height, I can estimate it to be around 70cm. That’s a total of 2.45m.

The exact measurement doesn’t really matter, what’s important is we now have visual proof that a world class runner takes well over two metres with a single step.

Finally here’s a look at his last two steps, he’s easily covering the better part of five metres. His black shorts make it harder to identify which leg is forward or backwards but if you look at this shoulders there’s no doubt about it. And you can also see how far his body moves over the top of his support leg as he pivots from landing up to toe-off.

Women’s 10K

So far I’ve talked about the stride length of the 400m hurdler and 800m runners. These shorter distance track athletes always have a longer stride than distance runners because the speeds they run (around 3 – 3min30/mile) are that much quicker.

Last weekend the BBC were showing the Great Manchester Runs. A friend who was watching the women’s 10K race messaged to point out the difference in running styles of the two lead ladies – Eilish McColgan and Meraf Bahta.

It was clear McColgan has a long, bouncy stride with a high back kick – probably because she’s still doing shorter track races – whereas Bahta’s stride was shorter and flatter. By flatter I mean she’s staying more level with the ground, less bounce.

Rewatching footage from the second kilometre I counted their respective cadences. McColgan was running at 172 steps per minute, Bahta up at 200.  It’s a notable difference and knowing that they were running together slightly faster than 3min/km (4:45/mile) you get an indication of their stride lengths –  McColgan’s is 1.97m and Bahta’s 1.70m.

Ordinary runners

McColgan is impressive but it’s Bahta who really makes the point. Even for a high cadence runner, she still has a stride length far above that of most runners. Most of the ordinary runners I know have short stride lengths according to their Garmins. If it’s much over a metre on a general run that’s unusual. Of course you can’t big stride all the time but I doubt many have the strength and technique to extend their stride out when required.

My 10K races have an upper end value of something like 1.4m when I’m fresh and usually drop into the 1.30s by the end. I’m sure I’m not unusual in this respect and of course I’m not running world class pace so it’s naturally going to be shorter at my slower race paces.

Most ordinary runners work on their cadence with no thought for improving their mechanics or top-end speed to create a longer stride length. This is a mistake because as we’re seeing with someone like Bahta, that longer stride length is still beneficial when you have a high cadence.

The way you develop a decent stride length is by pushing off more powerfully. You don’t reach out in front of you, you launch yourself forwards through the air with each step. Think of it like being on a pogo stick using the spring to load up and travel forwards for as much distance as possible. As a runner when your leg is behind you, you extend your hip, your knee, your ankle to push forwards. Learning this technique is best done during strides or hill sprints. Short efforts where you’re not concerned about running out of energy or fatiguing.


One last picture of David Rudisha to marvel at. It’s during the flight phase of the last step. His foot is a good half metre or more before the line and looks like he will land there yet somehow he travels on., His effort at toe-off propels him forwards the extra distance before his foot hits the ground. It happens quickly and horizontally. There is very little drop which is what the white line is there to help see.

The white line is lined up with the word “Kenya” on his vest and level just above the black tape by the finish. Take another look below at the finish line photo and you can see he’s only dropped a matter of inches to now be level with it.

When he was in the air, he wasn’t actually high off the ground. His effort goes towards pushing him forwards not up into the air. If you watch slow runners they use a lot of energy bouncing up and down rather than going forwards – this is bad.

If you want to marvel at Rudisha’s running, here’s the video of his 2012 Olympic run. There’s a good, slow motion close-up at the 7min10 mark.

I wrote another article looking at Eliud’s Kipchoge’s stride length and detailing how I calculated it here.