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.

5 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!

  2. My god this is just what we need to hear ….
    we need Race & Power Walk Coaches …. It really works for me -as I keep getting Achilles Tendonitus – But I don’t want to give up Triathlon …. I’ve tried everything?? This is wonderful news !

  3. I find your website very inspiring!
    Long story short, I’m a runner based in Ireland who loves long distances and in the last year managed to increase my miles and complete two ultra runs (50k Eifel Ultra and 58k Kerry Way Ultra).
    I’ve been struggling with pain in longer distances with hills, and my Ortho doctor just recently tells me it looks like I might have knee osteo arthritis. He also told to stop running until we get MRI results.

    I was pretty down but I discovered your site through Reddit. I started trying to do some faster walking, and I’m able to get up to 7.30 to 8.30 / KM on walks under 10km. On 15km I’m able to keep it below 9 /km.

    It’s quite liberating to know that I’m able to do this, and that it might be the solution that I’ve always been looking for, i.e. to be able to go ultra distances without the dreaded knee pain and injury risk. I have to thank you for opening up this possible fork in the road; as I don’t want to give up enjoying off-road trails and competing in Ultra races but I might need to stop running long distance totally.

    The only questions that arise are;
    – Did you also stop running due to osteo-arthritis or was it something else? I’m hoping to get your book to read more detail about this.
    – Isn’t it better for injured runners or those suffering from knee arthritis to avoid the official racewalking rules? The straight knee and hip swing imho is a little strenuous for long distance. I’m surprised there aren’t more videos showing people a more joint friendly method of speedwalking. The method I’m using kind of looks like running from a distance, I have a slight lean forward, arms close to the body, and land with a midfoot strike (or slightly back of the midfoot sometimes for variety), keeping the knees bent to eliminate knee loading and strain), a bit like this shuffle but with a zero flight phase (one foot always on ground): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=04K-x_yB6zY

    Thanks again for all of your information on getting into distance walking, and for those race reports also.
    My ultra aim is to complete the Kerry Way Ultra 100km or the EcoTrail 80km by walking. Using Garmin PacePro, I feel that’s it’s totally do-able to reach the cut-offs when you keep an eye on the splits.

    Thanks again and keep up the great work!

    1. Hi
      Thanks for you message. In my case it was an impact related ankle injury that caused me to finally switch to walking and drop the running altogether. For judged walking races longer than 50km the only rule is one foot on the ground at all times, and obviously for running events that don’t have judges, it doesn’t matter what your technique is like.
      My previous running and current walking style has always been heel strike first, and from a walking point of view, you will walk faster if you land on your heel and just as you are about to land you pull your toes up which pulls your heel forward slightly, lengthening your stride. I talk a little about this in my Ultramarathon training and racing tips article.
      Good luck. I hope you are able to continue with the ultras, whether that is by running or walking.

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