After the recent Rio Olympics, race-walker Manish Singh Rawat’s story went viral: He had lost out on the bronze medal by less than a minute in the 20km race-walk event. India had sent six athletes—including two women—to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for these events.
What exactly is this sport that so few know about?
Race-walking is essentially walking fast. As a sport, it has two basic rules. First, a race-walker must have one foot in contact with the ground at all times. This makes it different from running or jogging where, while going fast, you can have both the legs in the air. The second rule, the supporting leg must remain straight till the body passes directly over it. This gives race-walkers a funny posture—their hips jut out in an unnatural way while walking. “Race-walking is a technical as well as challenging sport. You need to follow the rules and yet walk fast,” says former national record holder Basant Bahadur Rana. Rana set the Indian record for 50km at the 2008 London Olympics and held it till Sandeep Kumar broke it in 2014 with a time of 3:56:22 at the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations’) World Race Walking Cup in China. This means Kumar would have finished walking a kilometre in 4 minutes, 7 seconds.
Why do it?
Race-walking can be beneficial for people trying to become fitter. Swapnil Zambre, orthopaedic surgeon at the Fortis Hospital in Kalyan, near Mumbai, says regularly practising it can help improve health. “It is good for people who cannot run because of injury or obesity since it is a low-impact sport.”
Mohammed Shabbir, chief of emergency and critical care at the Sparsh Hospital in Bengaluru, adds, “Brisk walking at a pace of 6 kmph will help you burn a maximum of 400 calories in an hour, while running at 10 kmph can burn 800-1,000 calories in an hour.”
Race-walking, however, can lead to injury if you haven’t been trained properly. “Race-walking is not a normal walking technique. Not bending the knee can put pressure on the joints and lead to stress fracture. Brisk walking, meanwhile, is a more exaggerated way of walking normally. Do that till you can gradually race-walk,” suggests Dr Shabbir, adding that people with joint injuries should stay away from this sport.
How to train
Dr Zambre suggests starting with brisk walks.
Rana, who started race-walking in 2005, trains every day, averaging 150-170km in a week. While that is not required if you don’t intend to take it up competitively, training no less than three days for an hour each is necessary, says race-walking coach R. Gandhi. “The first five-six weeks you should do walking at your comfortable pace, especially if you are not used to walking for longer durations at a stretch. Once the body gets used to it, you can increase the pace,” he says.
Gandhi recommends a pace that is faster than the regular walking pace, a relaxed but upright body, arms close and swinging forward and back (instead of moving away from the body), with comfortable and regular breathing. “While walking even six days a week is fine, it should be gradual. More importantly, the posture must be kept in mind,” says Gandhi. He explains that unlike running, since race-walking does not involve lifting your knee, the walker lands on his heel. Therefore, the heel must be strengthened with heel rotations, stretches and basic warm-up exercises.
Instead of tar roads, where the impact on the knee and ankle is greater, try walking on grass or mud/earth. And the shoes should be well cushioned. It is also important to be well-hydrated during and after race-walking. Gandhi says, “Isotonic drinks or home-made lemon-water with sugar and salt can work. Or you can mix 8-10g glucose powder to 1 litre water and keep taking sips from it.”