Race-walking for injured runners

The start of the 2015 Chateau-Thierry 24 hour race
2015 Chateau-Thierry 24 hour race start

I took up race-walking in 2012 after being frustrated by on-going impact related running injuries.  With the benefit of hindsight I wish I had discovered race-walking 30 years ago as I have struggled with running injuries ever since I first started running as a teenager in the mid 80’s.  I have never been good at listening to my own body and have always loved running long distances.  For me, these two things didn’t go well together and on many occasions over the years I would get a minor injury, run on it a few days or weeks, and then need to stop running for three to six months to recover from what had become a major injury.  You would think I might have learnt, but I never did.  Instead I was always an “injured runner” – either injured or recovering from an injury.

The only time that I managed to remain relatively injury free was the two years I spent training for Ironman triathlons in the mid 90’s, but that resulted in me becoming over-trained and taking ten years (1996 to 2005) away from the sport due to chronic fatigue syndrome.

In early 2010 I won a 60km ultra-marathon and after the race I met a guy (Andrew Shelley – current NZ 100km record holder) who walked the event.  I was amazed by the fact that he could walk so far, and so fast.  Race-walking was something that I had never previously considered.  I had seen it on TV when watching the likes of the Olympics and the Commonwealth Games and it looked so un-natural, but what I discovered was that there is a difference between elite race-walking and ultra-distance race-walking.

With elite race-walking the walker has to maintain a straight leg from the time the leading foot hits the ground until the hips move over the top of the knee (i.e. the leading leg must be straight at all times) and one foot must be touching the ground at all times.

But for distances longer than 50km, and for any shorter races that are judged under ‘B’ grade rules, the only rule is that one foot must be touching the ground at all times.

Ideally, if you can swivel your hips a little like the elite race-walkers then you will go faster, but that isn’t necessary.  And another tip for increasing your speed is that the faster you move your arms, the faster your legs move.  I discussed this in a blog post back in March that you can find here.

Anyway, 19 months after that ultra-marathon and meeting Andrew, in August 2011, I was struggling with injury again.  I was in the middle of a two hour run around Richmond Park (one of my favourite running routes) and my knee was killing me so I stopped running and power-walked home.  I did a few more walks and then walked a marathon in September followed by another one in December.

In February 2012 we moved back to New Zealand for two years and I started running again, completing four marathons over the next few months before getting injured again.

And that was when I became a race-walker.

My fifth marathon of 2012 had a separate start time for walkers so I switched my entry from being a runner to a walker and managed to finish third in 5 hours and 13 minutes.  Two months later I improved my PB to 4:53 and whilst I tried to combine being both a runner and a race-walker, after completing the London marathon in 2013 I pretty much gave up running in favour of walking.  In fact I have only run further than 5km two or three times since 2013 and whilst I still try to run parkrun most weeks, I am now a dedicated long distance race-walker.

Training up to 300 miles per month, and competing in ultra-marathons of up to 145 miles in length (my longest race as at the time of writing this article was the recent Grand Union Canal Race – 145 miles from Birmingham to London) I haven’t had any injury problems outside of residual soreness from walking non-stop for 20+ hours in 100 mile events.

Running puts huge stress through the legs.  I have read that with every stride the force going through your ankles and knees can be as much as six times your body weight, and after running thousands of miles over a period of almost 30 years I have realised that perhaps my body just isn’t made to handle that stress.  But with walking the impact is so much less.  My right ankle hurts every time I run a parkrun (5km) even if the run is off-road, but I can walk 100 miles without any pain.

And that is why I am a race-walker.

2 thoughts on “Race-walking for injured runners

  1. Hi Richard, that is a great article. I may have been blessed with good biomechanics and get very few injuries. At the age of 70 I had run over 130 marathons before I became ill with polymyalgia rheumatica. Walking and then B grade racewalking was my way back.
    I now include three sessions of racewalking in my training and moderate the running.
    Pleased to say marathon 152 was completed on Sunday, a trail marathon. I am 77 and still going – race walked Mablethorpe marathon last year in 5:28. Best wishes.

    1. That’s a fantastic speed at your age Tony. I can only hope that I am still able to walk a marathon in 30 years time, let alone walk one in 5 1/2 hours!

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