How Does Race Walking Compare to Running?
If you are a runner, you have undoubtedly poked fun at your race walking counterparts, wondering why someone would put forth so much effort not to run. In truth, there are just as many similarities between the two sports as there are differences. Runners and race walkers both have labels they find infuriating, such as jogger or power walker. Listed below are nine categories that describe the commonalities and dissimilarities that race walkers and runners share.
At the most basic level, race walking has a strict set of rules that athletes must follow at the elite level in order to avoid being disqualified from a race. According the United States of America Track and Field (USATF) committee, which governs both running and race walking, a race walker must follow two criteria throughout the entirety of the race: one foot must be on the ground at all times; and the leg that is not touching the ground must remain straight, with no bend in the swinging leg permissible.
On the other hand, running has no rules pertaining to running form and the only grounds for disqualification include impeding another runner or receiving unfair aid.
One similarity between running and race walking is that both are Olympic sports; however, the opportunities for competition are far fewer for the latter. While runners can compete in any distance, ranging from 100 m to marathon in the Olympics, race walking is competed at the 20k and 50k distances for men, and only 20k for women. Additionally, there are far fewer opportunities for race walkers to sign professional contracts.
There are not nearly as many race walking events held in the United States, and the prize purses at such competitions are also much smaller. However, at the highest level of sport there are similar types of events, such as the World Race Walking Challenge, is a grand prix style event where athletes accumulate points for competing in the series with a chance to win a share of $200,000 at the end.
In comparison, each male and female winner of the track and field events in the Diamond League Series receive $40,000 for winning the entire competition, in addition to the money they receive for placing in their events at individual meets throughout the months-long series.
What about the perspective of health? Surely one discipline provides a better workout than the other, right? As it turns out, there are few differences in the muscles that are used for both activities and the relative exertion. In fact, many elite race walkers can cover long distances at a pace of 6 – 8 miles per hour, which is on par with the majority of recreational runners, if not faster.
From a calorie burning perspective, walking and running burns different amounts of calories1 depending on pace. For instance, when race walkers walk at a pace faster than 12:30 per mile they begin to burn more calories than the runner who runs at a pace of 10:00 per mile. Otherwise, cardiovascular and muscular benefits are similar.
A major difference between running and race walking is that race walkers are less prone to injuries due to reduced force. With every step a runner takes, a force of approximately four times the runner’s body weight is placed on lower extremities, which contribute to injuries such as runner’s knee or shin splints. On the other hand, race walkers merely feel the effects of approximately 1.4 times their body weight, making force-driven overuse injuries rare.
A 1998 study in the Journal of Athletic Training2 indicates that injuries in the hamstrings, ankles, and feet of race walkers are most common, but the frequency with which these athletes become injured is much less, with the average race walker experiencing only one serious injury during his or her career.
How difficult is race walking versus running? Many people incorrectly assume that race walking is easier, given the “walking” component. However, whereas runners are capable of engaging in a leisurely run, the same cannot be said for race walkers, who must continually fight the body’s natural urge to break into a jog.
The continual focus on form and technique means that the elite race walker must practice at the physical level of an elite runner while engaging in the same mental focus as that of a hurdler or thrower.
While runners may become frustrated at the incessant Run, Forrest, Run! taunts, race walkers have it way worse when it comes to image. A particularly marginalized sport, race walkers are continually subjected to mean-spirited taunts. One look at headlines about race walking will reveal the attitude of the general population: that it is a weird, unloved, and funny looking activity.
In fact, a race walking group recently brainstormed ideas for promoting the sport to high school students by making fun of themselves and addressing the negativity they routinely face.
How easy is it to become a race walker versus a runner? While, technically, any person that can run can be a race walker and vice versa, but finding race walking clubs, coaches, and competitions is substantially more difficult.
The list of worldwide race walking clubs is small, with each state having one or two organizations. The number of race walking participants is therefore dismal compared to the much more popular sport of running.
Despite the limited opportunities and fewer competitors in race walking relative to running, doping is just as rampant – if not more so – in competitive race walking than it is in elite running. In fact, in the lead up to the 2016 Olympic Games where Russian athletes were banned from competition in track and field, the main doping allegations came from race walking as there have been 33 doping cases involving Russian athletes in the past few years.
While some spectators may question the veracity of the sport, the will to win of the competitors, no matter the cost, is the same among runners and walkers.
Finally, the motivation that drives people towards running and race walking is often different. Since there is no shortage of runners, few people set out to run in hopes of one day achieving glory. Instead, many people take up running for health or social reasons. Race walking, on the other hand, is not a recreational activity for nearly as many people.
As race walking Olympian Maria Michta states, many competitive race walkers chose the sport because they were not only biomechanically predisposed to walking versus running, but because it was their best chance at competing at the Olympic level. No doubt elite race walkers are among the best athletes in the world, and the relatively lower number of participants makes race walking a natural choice for some highly competitive athletes.
1. Wilkin LD, Cheryl A, Haddock BL. Energy expenditure comparison between walking and running in average fitness individuals. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2012;26(4):1039–1044. Link
2. Francis PR, Richman NM, Patterson P. Injuries in the Sport of Racewalking. Journal of Athletic Training. 1998;33(2):122-129. Link