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In the Long Run, Boomers May Discover That Racewalking Is the Way to Go

By Lenny Bernstein
Tuesday, June 9, 2009

There's a running gag in my family that goes like this: We'll be driving through some neighborhood and come upon one of those women (it's always a woman) power-walking down the sidewalk. You know the type: wildly exaggerated stride, arms pumping furiously, sometimes with a small weight in each hand.

"Dork walker!" one of my kids will cry out.

Sometimes it's me who does that.

Okay, it's usually me.

I think I might have to stop now. For I have met some walkers, and they make a pretty good argument about why I might be joining them in the not-too-distant future.

Not the dork, er, power walkers. No, these are racewalkers, and they believe that once word gets out to the nation's more than 70 million baby boomers, their sport could become the Next Big Thing.

"I want racewalking to become for baby boomers in their 50s, 60s and 70s what jogging was for them in their 20s," says Brent Bohlen, author of the new book "BoomerWalk: Why Baby Boomers Should Replace Running and Jogging With Racewalking."

It's hard to dispute Bohlen's main point: Racewalking is low-impact. As we age, the sport is much easier on our backs, feet, ankles and knees than running. How many people do you know who have been forced to give up running because of the constant pounding? I've run for years with a nagging knee injury and a recurring foot problem that requires occasional cortisone shots.

Bohlen cites research showing that racewalkers on average suffer only a single injury for every 6.4 years of participation, and only once in every 13 years is an injury serious enough to affect a racewalker's training. Other studies indicate that runners and joggers can expect to get hurt about three times as often.

And racewalkers need only an appropriate pair of shoes and a flat surface, making the sport inexpensive and accessible.

Bohlen's other big point is that racewalking provides a vigorous workout. In fact, he and others say, because the hips and upper body are so heavily involved, it uses more muscles than running.

That I needed to see for myself. So I went to a recent racewalking clinic and track meet held by the Potomac Valley Track Club at Falls Church High School. On a gorgeous Saturday at 7 a.m., Lois Dicker, a 69-year-old racewalker who competes nationally in her age group, was teaching the sport to first-timer Tom Gargan, who works at the U.S. Army Center for Environmental Health Research at Fort Detrick in Frederick.

Gargan used to run, but knee injuries have made that impossible. He plays tennis, windsurfs and skis, and to do any of them well, he says, he needs to lift weights and get regular aerobic exercise.

He started walking, but that wasn't enough of a workout. He decided he needed to get his upper body involved. He tried the elliptical machine in the gym but soon tired of it. And so here he is at the clinic.

Gargan says racewalking works for him, "especially in the summertime: being out in the environment, seeing the birds, smelling the flowers . . . rather than being with smelly people in a gym."

Racewalking is defined by two simple rules. First, you must maintain contact with the ground at all times. Second, the forward, or advancing, leg must be straight -- that is, locked at the knee -- from the time it touches the ground in front of you until it passes the vertical position beneath you.

Violating either tenet essentially would mean you are running, and that's of course what competitive racewalkers can't do. At track meets, judges can disqualify athletes.

Taken together, the two rules account for that heel-toe, hip-swiveling, arm-pumping style you've probably seen in clips of Olympic racewalkers. Good form and fast leg turnover are essential for speed, and putting it all together is not easy.

"There's a lot to learn about it, so it's mentally stimulating," Gargan says.

Dicker says she was "never that athletic growing up" but had seen racewalking when her father took her to the Penn Relays in Philadelphia, one of the oldest and most prestigious track meets in the country. She tried racewalking 22 years ago and found that she "just took to it."

The track meet that follows the clinic leaves no doubt about the sport's benefits aerobically, and for muscles and joints. Dicker covers 3,000 meters (a little less than two miles) in 19 minutes 48 seconds, and five other competitors, all of them men, turn in times ranging from 17:42.9 to 23:07.6.They are huffing and puffing like any other track athletes. (The world record in the 50-kilometer racewalk, a distance that is longer than a marathon, is 3:34.13, less than seven minutes per mile.)

Though racewalking was popular in the 1800s, and there have been surges of interest over the past few decades in some parts of the country, including the Washington area, there is little evidence that it is ready to challenge running or cycling for space on America's streets. Bohlen guesses that there are perhaps 10,000 U.S. racewalkers. There are very few on high school or college track teams, so until more coaches take an interest or programs like the Potomac Valley Track Club's catch on, developing the sport remains a significant challenge.

Is it at least in part because of that funky gait?

Bohlen notes how strange jogging looked when runners first took to the streets in the 1960s and '70s.

"I'm not out there to impress anyone," Gargan says. "I'm out there for myself."

I can see myself trying racewalking sometime, when my running days are over. Who knows: Maybe I'll even try power-walking up the street, a weight in each hand, iPod blasting, oblivious to the snide comments of people driving by.

Maybe not.

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