I find I can understand race walking technique better by understanding running technique and the differences between the two. This page looks at a side-by-side comparison of a race walker and a runner--and my friend Icabod has agreed to demonstrate their techniques. Of course, the runner is actually moving faster, but by putting their steps in sync (and pretending, for a moment, they are moving at the same speed), we can better understand the differences and similarities of their respective techniques.
First of all, note the following.
- Both are shown at something less than race speed. The models that Icabod is imitating were both photographed during training sessions.
- Both are shown with the same forward lean (4 degrees) and head carriage, and both are drawn as if they had the same height and length of limbs.
- The two athletes are syncronized based on arm swing. Both start driving the forward arm aft about the time the soon-to-be stance leg starts moving aft.
- The slight bobbing of the race walker's head is not due to the flight phase but rather to an emphasized use of the toe-off process to push the body forward. Such a bobbing is seen in most slow-motion videos of top race walkers.
- Both legs of both athletes are color coded based on the gait phase each leg is in: blue is for stance phase, green is for swing phase, and red is for flight phase. (See the Gait Anatomy page for definitions of the three phases.)
- Race walker Icabod is wearing red dots on the hip joints so that the viewer can more easily follow the pattern of hip rotation and hip drop used by race walkers.
- Animations are shown several times on this page so that at least one is visible at all times as you scroll down the page. Every other animation (including the one above) is at about one-third normal speed; the others are slower yet--at about one-sixth normal speed.
In reading the literature on technique, it seems that runners and race walkers are taught to use essentially the same range and pattern of of upper-body motions--including shoulder rotation and drop, amount of arm swing, elbow angle, direction of forward arm swing, and positions of the hands. Photos of top athletes seem to confirm this.
What is most interesting, however, is that photos of top athletes (both runners and race walkers) show many--if not most--of them ignoring the guidelines for "ideal" technique. Contrary to the ideals discussed in the literature, most exhibit rotation of the shoulders, some show dropping of the shoulders as the upper arm passes through the vertical position, almost all use varying angles of the elbow during the arm swing, most swing the arms at about 20-30 degrees in from the line of forward motion, and many tend to swivel the lower arms while in front of the body to keep the hands closer to the body as they reach (or pass) the sternum. While I am sure that extreme variations of shoulder and arm carriage can waste energy and reduce effectiveness in supporting the motions of the lower body, it seems that shoulder, arm and hand carriage is largely a matter of style.
In the animation, Icabod is showning the runner with a more relaxed range of arm swing and shoulder rotation than those of the race walker. The race walker is also bringing the lower arms further across the chest--thereby making them appear a bit shorter while in front of the body. Both are holding their elbows at a constant angle of 85 degrees. Neither is shown dropping the shoulders during the arm swing.
Hip rotation is used by the race walker to lengthen the step--mainly by delaying the toe-off process behind the body. That allows more time to push the body forward, a more favorable angle from which to push (less tendency to push the body upward), and also gives more time for the body to "fall" forward. The runner will exhibit some hip rotation but uses other techniques to propel the body forward.
The race walker uses hip drop to help the torso vault over the straight, supporting leg. It also minimizes vertical bobbing of the head. The runner has no need for the hip to drop.
- runner straightens knee of supporting leg to gain speed during toe off
- runner follow thru (high kick) shortens length of pendulum and allow quicker recovery during the swing phase (note how runner begins forward swing much later than race walker yet plants foot at about the same time
- race walker skims the ground during swing phase, runner's foot is very high
- both have foot moving backward upon first contact ("cat pawing")
- runner begins to raise heel much earlier than race walker
- runner lands flat footed; race walker rolls from heel to toe (walker lands quieter)
- the runner is off the ground for 9 of the 20 frames (i.e., 45% of the time). The long, flight phase gives the runner greater efficiency--which can allow greater speed for the same energy expended. The longer flight phase results from the bent knee which can be straightened during toe off and the shorter period during which the stance leg is planted in front of the body.
- amount of shoulder rotation seems to reflect amount of hip rotation (rarely see one without the other, and usually see both to about the same degree)
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