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Originally published Friday, September 27, 2013 at 11:16 AM

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Walk like you’re racing

Getting into the swing of racewalking takes concentration: straighten legs, flex toes, move hips, breathe hard.

Special to The Seattle Times

WHERE TO START

Club Northwest

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I SPOTTED Stan Chraminski right away from his gait: hips swaying, feet gliding over the pavement, arms pumping briskly. His cap also conveniently requested: “Ask me about racewalking.”

I didn’t know the first thing about racewalking when I met Stan at Green Lake on a hot, sunny day — including that I should not call it speedwalking. Faux pas No. 1.

Stan, who oversees the racewalking wing of Club Northwest, teaches newcomers racewalking every second Saturday of the month at the basketball courts at Green Lake, and met me to show me the ropes.

He took me through the rules, which are enforced during competition. The two key rules are one foot must be on the ground at all times, and your legs must extend straight while walking.

That seemed straightforward enough. He had me stand still, and then swing my hips side to side while bending my knees. He showed me how to place my heels one at a time in front of me on a straight line, keeping my toes up while walking, and how to swing my arms as if I was pummeling someone (gently) in the stomach.

He had me do a few practice walks and pronounced my technique good. Women tend to pick up the technique faster, he said, because they have an easier time getting the hip swing.

Stan came to racewalking after 10 years of running marathons. His body couldn’t take the intensity of running, so he decided to try low-impact racewalking, where he could still be competitive. Now 65, he walks a brisk 9:25-minute mile.

Racewalking is about ¼ to 1 / 3 slower than running, he said. Unlike runners, who go faster if they have a longer gait, racewalkers speed up by moving their feet faster. Fast-twitch muscles come into play in this distance sport.

For Stan, the technique requires him to stay more focused than he was in his running days. I started to wonder if racewalking was for me. Regardless, it was time to put our feet to the pavement.

We joined the crowds and walked briskly around Green Lake, discussing all manner of racewalking culture and competition rules. I tried to keep my pace up while focusing on technique. Stan, however, didn’t seem to be putting in any effort at all. At one point, he demonstrated his normal racewalking gait and was off like a shot. I did not keep up.

At the mile mark, we separated. I decided to focus for another mile to see if I could walk it in 12 minutes.

I set off merrily, concentrating on keeping my toes flexed and my hip swing sassy. I was sweating and started to breathe heavily. I could feel my heart rate rising. My shins were working, and I felt my hips getting nice and limber.

I watched people walking in front of me and thought with a touch of superiority that regular walking looked boring.

Then my mind wandered, distracted by people swimming in the lake, or by a kid running off from her mom. Focus. I made myself home in again on my technique. Toes up, legs straight, hips side to side. I started to envy the people ambling around Green Lake at their own pace.

I looked at my watch. Even if I hoofed it, I would be lucky if I finished my mile in under 14 minutes.

As challenging as it was to stay focused, I liked having a technique to work on even in a casual walk around Green Lake. Racewalking tends to appeal to the young and people recovering from injuries, Stan said. It also is a great option for non-runners such as myself who still want a brisk, heart rate-elevating walk.

I don’t plan to do any competitive racing from here on out, but I may be out there, working my hip swing.

Nicole Tsong teaches yoga at studios around Seattle. Read her blog at papercraneyoga.com. Email: papercraneyoga@gmail.com. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific NW magazine staff photographer.

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