But because there are so many different ways in which you can walk for sport or fitness, we thought it would be good to have a look at the other disciplines, to see how each one compares to Sport Walking, so you can understand your options.
Now, don’t hold us to this but we think there are probably five key types of energetic walking you could do and they all fit with the overall principles of Sport Walking – moving fast, going light and challenging yourself. The thing is, it’s not a competition – it’s more a question of which discipline best suits your objectives.
So, before we look at the other disciplines, let’s just recap on what Sport Walking covers. Sport Walking is an endurance walking discipline, rather than a specific walking technique or style. Essentially it’s ‘normal’ walking at speed, with or without poles, over long or ‘ultra’ distances, where your main focus is performance and achieving a challenge goal. As an endurance discipline, Sport Walking stands out as the way to take on Ultra Marathons but it’s also the most accessible way simply to walk for sport, given that you don’t need to learn a new technique.
You might choose to use poles either continuously or just tactically on steep ground but equally, you might simply want to walk free without them, it’s entirely up to you. Technique wise, there are no rules, it’s all about what works best for you and what helps you achieve your goal in the fastest time you can.
Speed Hiking is very similar to Sport Walking in principle, especially as it’s about walking on trails over long distances but there is a key difference and that is that when you Speed Hike you can run as well as walk. Depending on your source of information, you may be told that Speed Hiking is also about using poles continuously but to be honest, there doesn’t seem to be an established and accepted definition of what Speed Hiking is, it all depends who you’re referencing.
The overriding principle is to hike fast (hiking meaning covering long distances on the trail) and in that respect it’s kind of an anything goes principle – whatever you need to do to cover the ground as quickly as you can. That’s where there’s a very strong synergy between Sport Walking and Speed Hiking, the difference being that with Sport Walking it’s a walk only pursuit.
Speed Hiking is commonly used to set Fastest Known Times on super long trails like the Appalachian Trail, where distance is measured in the thousands of kilometres rather than the hundreds. Effectively, it’s where the challenge is too long to just run, so a tactical mix of running and walking becomes the best approach to cover the distance in the shortest time.
Now, we’ve got nothing against ‘run walking’, in fact we do it a lot and it’s a great technique for increasing aerobic capability and fitness but it isn’t pure walking, so you need to keep that in mind, especially as this is an overview of walking disciplines. In that respect it’s a bit of a hybrid, so while it’s a great pursuit in its own right, if you’re seeking a walking challenge, you have to rule Speed Hiking out as your approach.
In Race Walking for instance, disqualification is guaranteed if you don’t always have one foot on the ground the whole time and we think this definition of what walking is just works (one foot on the ground all the time).
So why include Speed Hiking in this overview? Well, that’s because it’s not compulsory to run when you’re Speed Hiking, it’s just allowed. So, as long as any Speed Hike challenges where you run are just kept separate from pure walking challenges, we don’t see a problem with it.
Race Walking is such an established discipline that it’s really the senior player in this overview. It’s quite common to see people using Race Walking technique in Ultra distance trail walks but over longer distances than Olympic or World classification and off road, it’s debatable whether this specific style actually improves performance.
Probably the only way to tell would be to engage some elite Race Walkers in ultra distance testing but that’s going to be tough to do given their busy schedules and focus on their training goals! At Elite level it’s likely that even the strongest Race Walker would moderate their walking style, to account for the conditions under foot. Remember, Race Walking technique is designed for top speed over smooth surfaces – track or tarmac.
So, hypothetically, Race Walking technique could well be best saved for shorter distances of up to 50k or at the very least, challenges that take place on more even terrain, like tarmac based Olympic Race Walks. When you hit the trails, face steeper climbs or rutted and rocky paths, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to maintain the fluid style that Race Walking is known for.
What this technique is unquestionably good for though is training, if your main focus is trail or ultra walking. Sport Walkers need to build aerobic capacity and that’s probably normally done by running but Race Walking is the perfect alternative, if you want to stick with walking.
It’s also good for getting you to understand the importance of ‘form’ and HOW you walk. When you’re learning a specific technique like Race Walking, you need to develop tunnel vision around foot placement and also leg movement, so that you can acquire the style required to Race Walk efficiently and effectively.
This is the same mental approach you need to develop the most efficient and effective Sport Walking form (which is different to Race Walking technique) – focussing on foot placement, stride length and cadence.
So the two are very compatible and Race Walking is superb for aerobic training for longer Sport Walking challenges. It’s also a superb sport to be a part of generally. Race Walking may not have quite the same profile as running in athletic circles but there is a big community of Race Walkers out there and it can offer you a great alternative to running for your aerobic work outs.
Nordic Walking has been one of the big growth areas of walking in recent years and has really helped put walking back on the public agenda. Its prescriptive technique has proved popular with many people looking for a full body workout and, quite possibly, the fact that Nordic Walking is so specific in that you need equipment and to learn a very precise technique is a part of its appeal.
The key thing with Nordic Walking, as with Race Walking is that it has a clearly defined technique to learn and to get the most out of it you need to walk that way. That may not be everyone’s cup of tea but, equally, if you learn how to Nordic Walk in order to be more effective when you use poles in your Sport Walking challenges, that can be just as beneficial. It’s all a question of your priorities.
In a Sport Walking situation, there are pros and cons. You only have to watch Ultra Runners running with poles on the flat to realise that using poles continuously is no hindrance to setting a fast time for a challenge. Also, because you use the poles all the time, there’s no issue around carrying the poles when you’re not using them. If there are any cons, it could perhaps be around maintaining your technique when the terrain gets more challenging, given that Sport Walking is not something you do on a fixed type of terrain, like Race Walking on Tarmac. If you’re Sport Walking the Scottish 4,000 metre peaks for instance, you might struggle to hold your Nordic form when the trail heads skywards or when the trail gets rocky.
The key really is to be adaptable and there are probably more scenarios where you can maintain your Nordic form during a Sport Walking challenge than those where you have to abandon it because of the trail conditions.
At the moment, participation in Nordic Walking seems more focussed around fitness and wellbeing than on what we would describe as Sport Walking challenges but that can change. The Nordic technique was quite widely used at Race to the Stones 100k for instance, although the faster times were set by walkers without poles. It’s simply a question of training for speed and being able to maintain technique in that situation.
The last ’style’ in our overview is what many people we encounter think we’re doing when we’re Sport Walking – Power Walking. While power walkers walk fast, it’s a far more physical and pronounced style than ‘natural’ Sport Walking and that’s all because Power Walking is fundamentally a fitness technique.
In Sport Walking, your form is designed to be minimal and as energy efficient as possible. With Power Walking, it’s supposed to be a work out, an all over work out, so the exaggerated style has a purpose – it’s designed to be stressing your whole body.
Power Walking has a place in training for Sport Walking challenges – it’s designed to be a work out, so why not use it for a Sport Walk work out? Being a strong Sport Walker and achieving your goals is dependent on being fit and strong from head to toe, not just in the legs. Having a strong core to keep you upright and to help you carry even a light weight pack over long distances is essential and while Power Walking won’t give you the same benefits as a structured strength and conditioning routine, it is a great base training technique for short fast sessions.
And that’s the best way to view Power Walking in relation to Sport Walking – it’s a training style. If you tried to Power Walk a 100k or 100 mile challenge, chances are (unless you’re an exceptional athlete) the ‘exaggerated’ style would sap too much energy to allow you to complete your challenge. Being efficient, easy, fluid and light on your feet is key to Sport Walking success, so keep Power Walking as an option if you’re looking for an all over fitness workout of for training to build strength to move fast when you Sport Walk.
It’s all up to you
And there you have it, five different ways you can walk for sport. The key thing is that you get out there and push yourself to become better, faster and technically more efficient whichever way you walk because that’s how you’re going to achieve your goals.