If you’re stepping up to take on an ultra distance challenge walk, there are three key adaptations you can make that will really help you walk longer faster. Whether you’re just looking to go the distance or set a fast time it doesn’t matter, just tune your technique and feel the benefits using these extracts from our ‘Zero to Hero’ plan.
1 – Walk soft and easy
This is not so much a technique as a fundamental principle of Sport Walking.
The ‘soft’ part mainly refers to your knees and always keeping them slightly bent and fluid. 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. So, as you walk, try to become aware of your leg movement and keep a very slight bend to your knees at all times. This doesn’t mean walking like Asimo, the Japanese robot, you just need to make sure you plant your leading foot earlier, so your leg doesn’t fully extend and lock.
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. As an off road endurance walking discipline, speed is a key factor but the style of walking should be relaxed and easy.
This means just walking normally but fast – nothing over exaggerated. 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.
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. 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. 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.
3 – Drive your legs backwards and use your Glutes
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 in front of you 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.
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.
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.