Let’s look a little closer at what happens when you use your hips properly. Observe the angle the front leg makes with the ground. The greater the angle, the more the ground pushes you back when you strike it. This phenomenon is known as braking force and will impede your progress. When you reduce the angle the foot makes with the ground, you reduce the braking force. Conversely, the longer stride caused by extending the hips allows your foot to strike the ground with a minimum of braking force. So use those hips!
Using your legs properly gets you moving, but to go really fast you must learn to use your hips correctly. The hips are the body’s primary source of forward locomotion. When we rotate the hips forward, the swinging leg is pulled off the ground. As we repeatedly pivot the hips forward, they act as the body’s motor, propelling it forward one step at a time.
Actively swinging the hip forward lengthens the stride from the top of the legs while increasing stride length behind the body. Observe the following two figures. The figure at left demonstrates stride without hip drive, while the figure at right shows the additional length obtained as the left hip extends forward. In a flexible race walker, the gain can be as much as six inches per stride.
The difference is even more visible from an overhead examination. In each figure below, the front foot is just ahead of the body. But notice the difference created by using the hips. With proper use of your hips, 30% of your stride is in front of your body, while 70% is behind it. This is how I achieved the longer stride behind my body alluded to during the explanation of leg motion.
Improving technique takes more than just knowing what to do. Walkers must develop and maintain flexibility to gain the full benefit of hip motion. To achieve elasticity and increased range of motion, be sure to practice the drills, particularly those that indicate high importance for the hips.
When I first learned to race walk, many of these drills were not commonplace. I actually didn’t start using them regularly until after I co-authored Walk Like An Athlete (1996). After two months of practicing the drills religiously, a race walking judge came up to me after a race and asked what had changed in my technique. She thought I looked great. I hadn’t consciously changed anything; it was my added flexibility that made the difference.