Race walking or pedestrianism as it was called at the time it began as one of the original track and field events of the first English Amateur Athletics Association meet in 1880. Pedestrianism like footraces and horse racing grew popular as a working class British and American pastime. Judged by the "fair heel and toe" rule, John Chambers won the first English amateur walking championship in 1866, which was organised by the walkers.
This vague code was the basis for the rules codified at the inaugural Championships Meet in 1880. With other modern sports being codified during the same century, the evolution from professional pedestrianism to amateur race walking came relatively late and was part of a process of standardisation occurring in most sports at the time.
The two golden rules
Like most sports, how the individual adapts to its governing principles defines his or her success in it. Its two basic rules state that, firstly, the athlete's back toe cannot leave the ground until the heel of the front foot has touched down. Failure to conform to this rule is called loss of contact or flight time, and can lead to disqualification if repeated.
It must be noted here that since the judges are aided by the human eye, sneaking in some millimetres worth of flight time undetectable without slow motion replays is not that uncommon in race walking. However, three warnings by the judges if an athlete is caught in the act can result in his or her disqualification.
The second rule is that the athlete cannot bend his knee. In other words, the supporting leg must remain straight from the point of contact with the ground until the body passes. With these two fundamentals of the sport in mind it is now up to the athlete to figure out how to go fastest, and needless to say competitors have found ways to push themselves to some stunning feats within the confines of the game.
Common distances for race walking vary from 3000m to 100km. The Olympics conduct 20km walks (12.4 miles) for men and women as well as a 50km walk (36.06 miles) for men. How long will it take to finish such distances without getting disqualified, you might ask? Well, the best time recorded in a 50km walk is 3:32:33 by Frenchman Yohann Diniz. So clearly, more people finish these walks successfully than you can imagine.
How do they do it? With time the athletes too have developed ways of overcoming the challenges of race walking and optimising their potential by making the most of whatever leeway the sport allows you. You can’t run. You can’t jump. You can’t bend your knee. The speed of your walk is your stride length multiplied by your stride frequency, taking into account you will have both long and short strides over the course of your run.
Hence in order to compensate for all these restrictions, one of the ways to go faster is rotating your pelvis to help take longer steps. This explains why the athletes walk in what looks like an awkward motion to the eye of a layman. Race walkers also drop their hips lower so as to keep the centre of mass low and avoid a bouncy motion in search of a more smooth and rhythmic walking technique.
Another method of going faster is by walking in a straight line. The tightrope analogy is used frequently in race walking and rightly so. It helps rotate the athletes’ pelvis while their back remains straight and upright, thereby making their steps longer.
Conditioning is also a pre-requisite in race walking. All the technique in the world wouldn’t matter if one is not physically fit. And one of the most important aspects of race walking that is frequently overlooked is cadence.
Cadence in the sporting realm involving running is the sum of 'revolutions per minute' (RPM), or the number of full cycles taken in a minute by the pair of feet. It is a means of measuring athletic performance with more RPMs while race walking translating into going faster.
All things factored in, it is safe to say that beyond the hip-swaying and funny outward appearance, the discipline of race walking is definitely no joke. It made its Olympic debut in 1908 and has continued to push the human body to the extreme ever since. Technique here counts for everything or else it would have been only taller individuals dominating the sport.
The current record for the 20km men and women race walk stands at 1:16:36 and 1:24:50 and is held by Japan’s Yusuke Suzuki and Olimpiada Ivanova of Russia respectively. Whereas, the 50km race walk record is held by Frenchman Diniz. The IAAF has been organising an annual worldwide competition series since 2003. Here the elite athletes accumulate points to stand a chance of competing in the IAAF Race Walking Challenge. The series takes place in multiple locations each year and has ensured the future of the sport is bright and in good hands.