Last time, in part one of our beginners guide to Sport Walking, we looked at how to identify your ‘baseline ability’ and what you need to get started. Next, it’s time to look at a few key technique elements.
Now, as we’ve said many times, Sport Walking is not about learning a specific technique, it’s just about walking ‘normally’ fast! Having said that, technique is still a key factor in enabling you do exactly that – walk fast – and it’s a really good idea to sort technique out early in the process.
There’s nothing new that you need learn as such, it’s all about taking how you walk naturally at the moment and making adaptations to make your walking style more efficient and to get a better transfer of power. If that sounds like a bit of a high tech way of looking at walking, you’re absolutely right! Remember, Sport Walking is exactly that – walking as a sport and that means fine tuning anything you can to improve performance.
There are four basic elements that we’ll look at and which you should refine, to give you the best Sport Walking form: Walk soft and easy; increase your cadence and shorten your stride; drive your legs backwards and use your glutes; develop and maintain good posture.
Don’t try and implement all four at once or change your walking style as a whole, instead take one element at a time and when you’ve got each one embedded add another.
1 – Walk soft and easy
“it helps you to absorb bumps and undulations and you start to flow over the terrain…”
This is not so much a technique as a fundamental principle of Sport Walking. When you’re simply walking normally but in the most efficient way and at the highest speed you can, a key to success is to be fluid and to keep everything really easy and simple.
The ’soft’ part refers to your knees and keeping them ’soft’ as you walk. It’s really easy to lock your knees when you walk without even realising it. This can lead to knee problems but also, it means that you have no shock absorption. The cure is very simple – as you walk, become aware of your leg movement and try to keep a very slight bend to your knees at all times, especially in your leading leg. This doesn’t mean walking like Asimo, the Japanese robot, you just need to effectively restrict your leg extension so that there is always a very slight bend.
When you make this change, it helps you to absorb bumps and undulations and you start to flow over the terrain more. If your legs are locked at any point, bumps and dips cause jarring that can interrupt your momentum and slow you down but ‘walk soft’ and your legs are your suspension and shock absorbers, saving you energy, keeping your muscles in good shape and increasing your speed over challenging terrain.
Walking ‘easy’ might sound like a contradiction, in terms of walking for sport but this is not about effort, it’s about walking style. In race walking for instance, the pronounced arm swing and hip sway are for a clear purpose – they’re to facilitate maximum speed on generally regular, smooth surfaces (track, tarmac etc) and mostly up to 50km. Sport Walking is different and other factors such as rough, undulating or difficult terrain and ultra distances come into play. Yes, speed is a key factor with Sport Walking but with it being predominantly an off road activity and over long or Ultra distances, the style of walking should be relaxed and easy.
This means just walking in a ‘normal’ style – nothing over exaggerated. Don’t think that to walk for sport you have to express this physically by looking like you’re working really hard! Think about how distance runners run – they seek to make their movements as energy efficient as possible, in contrast to the way a sprinter runs. It’s the same with Sport Walking. Your walking style should really look just like you would walk down the street but faster. Yes, swing your arms but no need to adopt a Race or Power Walking style.
2 – Increase your cadence and shorten your stride
This is, quite possibly, the most significant change you can make to set you up to become a strong, fast Sport Walker. When setting out to walk faster, your instinct might be to take longer strides but while this will deliver a bit of a speed increase, it’s really inefficient.
“If you take faster, shorter steps, you’re placing your next step before your forward momentum has died away from the previous step, so you’re saving energy…”
The better approach is to increase your ‘cadence’ or, in simpler terms, increase the number of times your feet touch the ground. Increasing your cadence enables you to take shorter strides, which is important to avoid over stressing your muscles and joints. It also makes for a far more efficient power transfer.
When your cadence is high and your stride short, you can build far more momentum than with a longer stride and lower cadence. If you’re taking long strides with a low cadence, you’re effectively having to power each stride from the start point.
With a higher cadence and shorter strides, you’re still in the key phase of forward motion when you make your next step, so it takes less effort per step. Team Sky’s Chris Froome is probably the most well known exponent of the ‘high cadence’ principle and it’s quite good to look at climbing in cycling to understand it better.
With the more traditional climbing style you use your full body weight, standing up on the pedals, to drive down and therefore create forward propulsion. The implication of this style is not hard to understand – with slower rotation, the rider has to effectively power each downward pedal stroke individually. Yes there is a degree of momentum with the body moving from side to side but it’s still quite an inefficient way to power the bike. Effective in the right hands, yes, but efficient? No.
Look at a rider who applies the ‘high cadence’ style on the other hand. The seemingly frantic pedal turning might look strange but because the rider maintains momentum better from the fast spinning pedals, he needs to use less effort for each individual stroke. Each pedal rotation simply ‘tops up’ the momentum that’s already created, rather than having to create new momentum each time.
It’s the same in walking. If you take faster, shorter steps, you’re placing your next step before your forward momentum has died away from the previous step, so you’re saving energy and also using less muscle power to deliver your speed.
While cadence and stride length are two separate things, it’s best to adapt both at once. If you simply increase your cadence but don’t shorten your stride length, you’re creating a big physical challenge for yourself because you’ll need to propel yourself faster with a longer stride. It’s also likely that you’ll instinctively shorten your stride as you increase your cadence anyway, so making the transition shouldn’t be difficult.
The optimum tempo for your cadence will vary from person to person depending on your leg length but as a guide, find some dance music with a strong beat of between 125-132 beats per minute or use a metronome set to that tempo. Then, simply walk in time to the beat.
You’ll need to shorten your stride to fit with the tempo, so that you can comfortably match the beat and sustain a good walking style. If you need to start a little slower that’s fine but you should aim to raise the tempo to the optimum level as soon as you can. The faster tempo and higher cadence is not simply to deliver greater speed, it’s to make your walking style more efficient. An increase in speed will come as you are able to drive your legs harder through each step, while keeping the same cadence and stride length.
If you find it hard going initially, chances are your stride is still too long, so shorten it further. In fact, if you need to take tiny steps to start with that’s fine, getting into a faster cadence is more important in the early days than reaching a high speed. Of course, if you do find yourself having to take really short steps to match the tempo, then you will need to continue just walking positively at whatever cadence you can manage in order that you gain some fitness benefits from your training walks. If that’s the case though, make sure you spend time working on your cadence in a dedicated technique session as well.
Sooner or later, everything will come good and you’ll be able to get a good high cadence, reasonable stride length and an increase in speed but in the early days, just make sure that whenever you’re on a training walk, you’re trying to settle into the closest tempo you can to 132bpm and also that you’re consciously trying to shorten your stride.
3 – Drive your legs backwards and use your Glutes
“When you walk, simply focus on landing your lead leg closer to your body…”
Another mistake many people make when trying to walk faster is to think that they need to project their leading leg further out in front of them. There’s a certain logic to this – you’re seeking to move forward quickly and so you could be forgiven for thinking that stretching your legs out will achieve this.
By stretching your leading leg out further in front of you, you’re not only using your quads as your main power plant, you’re putting greater stress on your knees because they are offset from your body – the weight they are trying to move. Think of the difference between holding a heavy weight out in front of you with arms stretched, compared to holding the same weight close to your body. The bio-mechanics are obviously different to walking but it illustrates the point quite well.
The solution is to adopt a principle that has been key to athletic performance in running for a very long time – to ‘engage your Glutes’. You may have heard of your ‘Gluteus Maximus’ – it’s the biggest muscle in the whole human body – but in many runners and, also, in many walkers it’s greatly under used.
When you stretch your leading leg out in front of you to try and increase your speed, you effectively pull your body past it but what will enable you to bring your Glutes into play and to take advantage of this most powerful muscle is to drive your legs backward behind you.
If your Glutes aren’t working effectively, your Quads (front of thigh) and Hamstrings (rear of thigh) have to work overtime and they can become stressed and injured. A Hamstring injury in particular can be a big blow to your training, especially a chronic injury such as a Tendonopathy. So it’s a really good idea to make this adaptation to your walking, both to improve your performance and, also, to help prevent injury.
For your Glutes to fully take over powering your walking, they do need to be ‘active’, so if you’ve led a sedentary lifestyle for some time, you may need to do some specific ‘Glute activation’ exercises to switch them on again. There are plenty of videos online showing you how to do this and some running shops also run courses to teach you how to do it, so it’s easy to get help.
Assuming you have Glutes that are ‘active’ or at least on their way to becoming active, start thinking about where you place your lead foot while you’re walking. Try to place it as close to your body as you can, while obviously maintaining good momentum.
This adaptation will take a little practice but it’s well worth it. When you walk, simply focus on landing your lead leg closer to your body, don’t stretch it out in front of you. Hold off of any effort until your body is fully over the leg and then drive your leg backwards. You should notice a distinct acceleration that’s easy to generate. You may also notice a slight ‘burn’ in the Glute – that’s just it doing its job! You can also give a little clench to each buttock as it drives the leg back, to help you feel if you’re getting the movement right.
As you get better at driving your legs back and using your Glutes to do it, you’ll start to notice how this has a direct correlation with an increase in speed and before long, it’ll be second nature.
4 – Maintain good posture
This final element to good Sport Walking form is quite simple but it does make a big difference to overall performance, especially when you go long.
“walk with your head high, your back upright and straight…”
Maintaining good posture is important because without it, you can develop back problems, certain muscles can take more of a strain than they need to (leading to fatigue or even injury) and you’ll find your walking harder going than needed.
Maintaining good posture is simply about standing tall, keeping upright and with your weight centred. If you lean forward, hunch or slump, your weight is off centre and this can place strain on your back and other muscles. If you’re carrying a rucksack or vest it will only add to the loading and strain.
Whenever you walk, seek to do it with your head high, your back upright and straight and without a forward lean, except when climbing when it can help, especially on steeper slopes.
To help you build and maintain good posture, think about learning Yoga or Pilates, do some core exercises such as the Plank and also consider strength and conditioning with weights. If you have a strong core, it will not only help you maintain good posture when walking, it will also enable you to stay in better condition if you take on a long distance challenge. Walking is not just about being strong in the legs, your core strength is a valuable asset too.
Putting it into practice
So, quite a bit to absorb and to adapt but the key thing is not to try and change everything at once. Work on one thing at a time and once its relatively second nature, work on something else. You should seek to change your technique over a period of months, so that you can continue to train effectively. Don’t think that just because you have things to change about your walking you can’t still get out and train, just try to work on one element of your technique each time you train and you’ll make progress before you know it.
Next time, we’ll be looking at the basic equipment you need for Sport Walking