Race walking is an Olympic track and field event, but many people enjoy modified versions of race walking—often referred to as power or speed walking—as a recreational exercise.
There are no hard and fast rules about how to speed walk, but it generally means you are walking as quickly as you can, short of running—and to do this, it helps to pump your arms with your elbows bent.
In 2011, the Summer National Senior Games added power walking as a demonstration (not official) event, in which one foot must always be in contact with the ground but, unlike in race walking, the knees may be bent.
While a brisk walker typically covers a mile in 15 minutes (that’s four miles per hour), a power or speed walker may do a 12-minute mile (five miles per hour), though this depends in part on the person’s height and stride length. A good race walker can move faster than a 10-minute mile (six miles per hour). In contrast, a slow walker or stroller moves at about two miles per hour.
Swiveling (really rotating) your hips helps increase speed by reducing your side to side motion so that you have the most propulsion forward. The bent arm swing also helps by allowing the arm to swing more quickly, in sync with your feet. Pushing off with the front of your back foot speeds things up, too.
Quicker walk to fitness
Any kind of brisk walking is certainly good for you. But picking up the speed gives you more of a cardiovascular workout and burns more calories, especially when you pump your arms. The more intense motion of speed walking boosts muscle activity in your hips and ankles more than just regular walking and works out your upper body as well.
A study from the Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research in Dallas, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that women who walked at different speeds (three, four, or five miles an hour) five days a week for 24 weeks all showed gains in fitness. But those who walked the fastest benefited most—as much as runners.
Another study, in the International Journal of Sports Medicine, similarly found that race walkers achieve cardiovascular gains as great as those seen in runners.
Of all fitness activities, speed walking is one of the easiest, safest, and cheapest (you just need comfortable shoes). Because it’s lower in impact, it puts less stress on your back, hips, legs, knees, and ankles than running, where both feet are simultaneously off the ground at a given point and thus come down harder.
But as with any sport, overuse injuries are possible, depending on how fast, how intensely, and how often you do it.
A step-by-step guide
To boost your walking pace, you need to maintain good posture—keep your chin up, head level, shoulders relaxed, and back straight. Your arms should be bent at 90 degrees at the elbow with a closed (but not clenched) fist. As you step with one leg, swing your opposite arm in sync with your stride.
Pump your arms from the shoulder, not the elbows, and keep your arms tucked close to your ribs. When you swing your arm forward, don’t let it cross the center of your body and don’t let your elbow rise above chest level. When you swing back, don’t raise your fist higher than your buttocks.
Strike the ground with your heels, toes up. Don’t bounce or sway your upper body. Your hips should be in line with your shoulders, but as you increase your speed, they will rotate naturally. Planting your feet along an imaginary straight line (or as close to it as you can) also gives you more of a swivel action.
Take smaller steps—overstriding will only slow you down in the long run.
Start with a 20-minute walk several times a week and gradually pick up the pace from week to week.
Vary your routine—for example, by carrying a weighted backpack one day and then doing some hill walking another day. In addition, you can try interval training, alternating a fast and slower pace. You can also speed walk on a treadmill at a gym (flat or with “hills,” with or without interval training).
Bottom line: You don’t have to race walk with all the hip action and straight legs, but getting your walking pace up to at least four miles an hour is a good goal. Research shows that people who can walk faster—a sign of fitness—have lower mortality rates. Still, walking even at a slow pace is better than not walking at all.