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Race/Olympic Walking: Origins, Rules, Techniques
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Race/Olympic Walking: Origins, Rules, Techniques

Isabel-Mayfield-health-reporter
Written by Isabel Mayfield | Medically reviewed by Medically reviewed by Rosmy Barrios, MD check
Published on September 28, 2022
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5 min

Race walking has a reputation for having strict rules that make a seemingly easy sport a whole lot more difficult. Read more to find out!

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Race walking is a sport that has been around since as early as the 1800s. It has now been a part of the modern Olympics for over 100 years.

Although the walking gait may look strange to anyone unfamiliar with the sport, it is an important part of what makes this sport so unique and separates it from other track-style events.

In this article, you will learn more about the unique rules of race walking, where the sport originated, and how you can become a racewalker. 

What Is Race Walking?

Race walking is more or less exactly what it sounds like – a race that has to be done in adherence to certain rules that restrict the participants’ movements to ensure they remain walking for the duration of the race.

All race walk events are 3,000–5,000 meters (1.86–3.1 miles) in indoor tournaments, while races on outdoor tracks are either 5,000, 10,000 (6.2 miles), 20,000 (12.4 miles), or 50,000 meters (31 miles).

Race walking is believed to have originated in the Victorian Era, which occurred between 1837 and 1901, though at that time, it was referred to as pedestrianism. 

It came about as a form of betting by noblemen on who of their footmen – men who walked alongside their employer’s carriage – could walk the longest without becoming fatigued. These races would often have participants walking for up to 1,000km over the course of 6 days.

The sport made its debut in the Olympics in 1904 as part of a decathlon-style event and was eventually recognized as a sole event in 1908. 84 years later, in 1992, participating in race walking events at the Olympic games was also made available to women. 

What Are the Rules of Race Walking?

Race walking differs from other track-style running events because of the rules that restrict the body’s full range of movement through the legs.

At all race walking events, judges use nothing other than their human eye to ensure that the participants follow two strict rules that result in penalties when broken.

One of these rules is that all walkers must keep at least one foot on the ground at all times. The other requires that the front leg of all race walkers must remain straightened from the time it reaches the ground until the leg passes all the way underneath the body.

Inaki Gomez, a Canadian race walker, said:

 “Your eye can catch anything that is slower than 0.6 seconds, so the quickest lifter is going to be okay within the rules. You have to push the envelope; you want to be on edge.”

Race walking would likely be a very different sport if the judges could use cameras to monitor the participant’s movements. 

Is Race Walking the Same as Olympic Walking? 

Yes, Olympic walking is another name that refers to a sport called race walking. 

Race walking competitions take place on indoor or outdoor tracks and involve walking anywhere from 3,000 to 50,000 meters. 

All race walk events in the Olympics last for either 20km or 50km and are the only walking events held at the Olympics games, hence where they got their second name. 

What Is Olympic Walking? 

Olympic race walking is the same as race walking. The only major difference is that normal race walk events outside the Olympic games have a variety of race distances that can vary from 3,000 to 50,000 meters.

At Olympic race walking competitions, men have the option of choosing between a 20km and 50km race walk. Women only have the option of competing in a 20km race walk.

What Is the Average Speed of Olympic Walking? 

Olympic athletes can walk an average of one mile every 6 minutes, with the record for the fastest mile being 5:31 minutes, held by British race walker Tom Bosworth.

Beginners or those doing a race walk for fun would want to more or less power walk while keeping the advanced leg straight. Most people can power walk between a speed of 4.5–6 miles an hour, meaning an average mile time would be between 10–13 minutes.  

Race/Olympic Walking Techniques for Beginners 

Starting to do race walks, whether just for fun or even in a competition, can offer many opportunities to improve your fitness level, have fun, and connect with a new like-minded community.

The most important thing to practice before enrolling in your first race walking competition is to nail down the form, which involves having one foot in contact with the ground at all times and keeping your front leg straight as it passes under the body.

What is a proper race walking technique?

Some race walk coaches recommend that beginners not focus on the race walking rules. Instead, they suggest focusing on the technique and trusting that, when done properly, you will be within the race walking limitations. 

  1. Keep your neck straight and your chin level with the ground while you walk
  2. Keep your shoulders relaxed
  3. Bend your elbows until your arms are at a 90-degree angle, and close the palm of your hand while holding your thumb tight against your pointer finger. 
  4. Keep your arms in this 90-degree position for the duration of your walk.
  5. Swing your arms across the body from the mid-chest until just behind your torso. This action will help to counterbalance the rotation of your hips while you walk. 
  6. As you draw one of your legs in front of the body, you want to first land on your heel. The knee of your back leg will then bend until your weight is on its toes. You then bring the back leg in front of the body, once again landing on the heel. 

How fast you walk in the beginning will depend on your current fitness level, but averaging 3 miles an hour should be available to most beginner race walkers. If you want to step up your speed but aren’t sure how, try doing various walking workouts outside of just race walks.

There are walking apps that offer users a variety of walking workouts which, when combined with their personalized meal plan options, can help you strengthen the body and get it ready for more intense walking workouts. 

Eventually, you will have the strength you need to complete a 20km race walk if that’s your goal.

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FAQs

What distance do race walkers have to cover in the Olympics? 

In the Olympics, athletes have only two race distance options. One, which is 20 km, is available for both men and women. The second is 50 km and is a distance only available for men.

Who is the fastest race walker?

Gold medal winner at the Anniversary Games in London Tom Bosworth currently holds the title for fastest race walker. This athlete from Great Britain walked a mile in 5:31 minutes, 6 seconds faster than the previous world record.

Why is race walking considered an Olympic sport?

Race walking is considered an Olympic sport because it has been a track event in the modern Olympics for over 100 years.

What is a red card in race walking?

Red cards are what race moderators use to communicate with the chief judge. 

Race walking has two strict rules that walkers must adhere to. Walking with a bent knee or the supporting leg losing contact with the ground can result in a penalty that is doled out using a red paddle.

A Word From Our Coach:

Unlike many other sports, race walking is available to a wide variety of people regardless of their age or level of fitness since it is so low-impact.

Another bonus of this walking style is that it only requires a pair of running shoes. 

If you want to start race walking, whether for fun or to compete in a worldwide competition, it’s a good idea to start with nailing down the form and doing various walking workouts to improve your cardiovascular endurance and strengthen your muscles.

How long it takes to see results from walking will depend on how consistent you are with your walking workouts, but even 30 minutes a day can help you get race-ready.

Bottom Line

Race walking is a sport that has been around for hundreds of years and was just as popular as horse racing at one point in time. 

Now it is the only walking event offered at the Olympic games and is also a part of big competitions around the world.

Isabel-Mayfield-health-reporter
Written by
Isabel Mayfield is a certified yoga instructor with over 10 years of experience in the fitness industry. She is passionate about self-improvement and loves to help people improve their sense of self-worth through education and support in meeting their fitness goals.
Medically reviewed by Rosmy Barrios, MD
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