Are running shoes the best choice for race walkers?

 

Footwear is the primary piece of equipment for race walkers, most of whom wear running race flats for training and racing.  The reasons seem obvious.  Low profile, light weight, flexible shoes allow walkers to “heel-toe” with little resistance.  Also, the soft midsole foams allow athletes to bounce off the heel to propel them forward, creating a technique that looks more like straight legged running than pedestrian walking.  So, then it makes sense to wear running shoes, right?  Maybe not.

Top race walkers can exhibit flight time that is a fraction of a second and still appear to be in contact with the ground due to their high strike rate.

Running shoes are designed for an activity that involves vertical propulsion, while race walkers work to maintain contact with the ground.  Based on this fact, are race walkers fighting against the inherent attributes of their shoes with each step?  More importantly, can wearing shoes designed for a seemingly contradictory activity produce injuries?

To answer these questions, start by considering the biomechanics of race walking vs. running.  When a runner’s heel strikes the ground, their quadriceps engage eccentrically to absorb the ground reaction forces before assisting in the push off phase of the stride.  Conversely, when a race walker’s heel strikes the ground, they engage their quads concentrically to exhibit a straight knee.   Since concentric contraction is not a stabilizing action, another muscle needs to do that job.  Ideally, the glute medius will fire, but what if the walker has weak glutes?  Another group of muscles will need to step up.  Hamstrings to the rescue!

The problem with relying primarily on the hamstrings to stabilize and motor you forward is that they are vulnerable to injury.  The reason is because this muscle is connected to two different joints:  the knee joint and the hip joint.  The knee joint is stable.  The hip joint is mobile.  As a walker lands on the heel, the end of the hamstring connected to the knee is contracting to stabilize.  At the same time, the walker’s hip is rotating forward and backward, therefore stretching the opposite end of the hamstring.  Think of a rubber band that you continually tug on over and over.  Eventually, it will tear.

Let’s assume that you have a walker with excellent core strength and the glutes are doing their job.  We still need to consider foot and ankle posture and how it plays into the whole process because an overly supinated foot creates more stress on the peroneals, while those who pronate can develop knee pain.   Soft midsole foam in the shoes will magnify the dysfunction because resilient foam acts as a “spring”.  Also, the tilt of the walker’s pelvis plays a role in functional movement as they drive their knee forward from the single support phase through to the double support phase.  Walkers with a posterior tilt tend to have an easier time engaging glutes.  Those with an anterior tilt tend to rely on hip flexors to pull their bodies forward on each stride.

Race walking has been described as a full-body exercises that requires flexibility and functional integration between the major muscle groups.  If that’s true, then a trip to the weight room should solve these issues of dysfunction that are causing pain and injury.  In a perfect world, that might work, but then we’re still left with shoes that are designed for runners.  So we thought we’d just create something that is better suited to a walker’s gait.

Reshod Walking Shoes use a midsole containing a firm heel foam, a softer transitional center section, and a toe foam made of rebounding foam.   The three pieces work together to create a product that allows a walker to use the entire surface of the foot to heel plant, stabilize and power forward.  The toe foam is strategically placed to encourage propulsion to occur AFTER the walker’s hip has passed over the center of gravity.   This is crucial for minimizing vertical motion and diverting that energy in a horizontal direction.  By the way, this technology works for the casual walker, too!  Try it for your next fitness, competitive, occupational, or recreational walk.

  Coach Carmen has been race walking since 1986 and was a member of the US 50k Women’s RW team in 2015 and 2016.  She has been coaching youth and adult race walkers for over 20 years and serves as the President of a USA Track and Field race walk club in the Portland, Oregon area.  In 2008, Carmen launched Reshod Walking Shoes, an innovative brand of walking shoes that uses angled foams to create a smoother support system.  Carmen holds two US utility patents and is awaiting her third.