Resources - Comparison of Race Walking Techniques Through the Ages

As long as I have been race walking people have been arguing over technique and training methodology. Thanks to Maury Silverman who provided me with a copy of a 1924 book, "The Walking Cure", I learned that little has changed, people have always been arguing about proper walking technique. The first half of "The Walking Cure" is an excellent survey of the various styles of walking and the associated benefits from walking. While not a book on race walking, it is a good walking book.

Basic Truisms

MacFadden's believes that walking is the route to perfect health. He defines health as "the perfect functioning of every organ and every tissue and every individual cell in the body." Not many of us would argue with that.

MacFadden exalts the health benefits of walking. While the basic idea of his claims are valid, the extent to which he claims walking can cure almost everything reeks of late night infomercials we hear touting miracle products to solve all your health problems. An interesting historical note, even in 1924 he warns against eating white bread, white flour products, and uncoated rice. As we know today, whole foods are much better than these vacuous processed foods. He also suggests to refraining from "hot rebellious poisons" such as alcohol and tobacco.

Another of MacFadden's incredibly resilient truisms was his description of race walking. Although he never refers to "race walking" as such, he mentions a "bent-knee method of walking" that from the side shows the knee is raised to a "ridiculous height." MacFadden claims that this "goose-step" walking method "will never become popular in this country, because of the awkward effect it produces, and because it has to be cultivated." We are all too aware of the mockery we receive when out race walking; nor will many of us deny the lengths we have gone to excel at efficient race walking technique.

Walking Methodology

When MacFadden discusses walking it seems similar to modern soda advertisers: "Image is everything" Much text discusses how to dress and appear while walking.


MacFadden describes proper walking style as walking with the body erect, head back, chin in, chest prominent, and abdomen free. He continues, to walk properly take deep breaths when walking. This is pretty close to how I might describe the posture of race walking, with the exception of the chest prominence. He has the right idea about breathing, yet later in the book he states that one should breathe through the nose. Unless you are walking in extremely cold weather, it is more desirable to breathe through your mouth.

Foot Placement

MacFadden emphasizes that for efficient walking the foot should be pointed straight ahead. This is ideal, although some walkers unintentional point their toe slightly in or slightly out. I believe those individuals who naturally point in or out should not try to radically change their foot placement. According to MacFadden, other experts of his day were actually teaching a walking technique that advocated point their feet out at a 45 degree angle when walking. While MacFadden recognizes the inefficiency of this style of walking: he suggests that if you have flat feet, one should turn your toes in slightly. This is intended to strengthen your arch.

According to Jay Bellias, D.O., this is not correct. The muscle power in our feet and lower legs cannot accommodate the bones in the arch to reposition themselves to a significant advantage. Instead he suggests realigning the joints and bones using an orthotic.

I believed that race walking was called "heel-toe walking" because of the obvious heel plant and push off from the back foot. I was not aware of how much of a contrast "heel-toe walking" was from the traditional form of walking for exercise. According to MacFadden, experts of his time claimed proper walking technique was either to land on the tips of your toes or the balls of your feet. In discussing MacFadden's book with Howie Jacobson, one of America's most experience walking coaches, coach Jacobson said that even some modern day "experts" on walking have, until the last decade, still touted landing on the balls of the feet as proper. MacFadden suggests that the rationale for this was that it appears to have poise as well as a being a noiseless means of travel. Again we see that in the early days of walking, image was key.

Edward Payton Weston, one of the most accomplished long distance walkers of all time, preached another methodology of walking. He did not advocate heel-toe walking, because it forced the foot to land with a thump and excessive push off strained the toe tips. Weston suggests landing on a flat foot, causing the impact force to be evenly distributed throughout the foot. Although Edward Payton was quite successful in his day, "proof by example" is not a tenant of science.

Compared with Weston's flat footed approach, MacFadden claims his "experiments" concluded that when you place the heel on the ground first and then leave the toe on the ground to that last possible moment your toe will help spring the body forward. This is similar to what we practice in the propulsion phase of the race walking gait.

Hip Motion

MacFadden also describes proper race walking hip motion. "Swing the leg forward from the hip, at the same time swing your hip slightly forward with the leg. Then you will find that you can lengthen the stride very appreciably and at the same time get up a much better speed."

Arm Swing

Lacking from MacFadden's discussion on walking is proper use of the arms. Most probably it is do to the lack of use of the arms in MacFadden's style of walking, other than the natural arm swing we use when walking down the block.

Proper Walking Attire

MacFadden's walking attire was a creation of the times he lived. He claims if social pressures did not exist, that we would "walk in a costume that was worn by the aborigines." In my opinion he is claiming that wearing less is better allowing freer movement of the body. Looking at today's running attire of Cool Max tank tops and skimpy shorts we can see that fashion has caught up with his desires for walking attire.

Training Methodology

MacFadden's training methodology is simple. Begin with a short distance and increase a little bit each day. We follow a similar philosophy, adding training cycles as well as rest days. He also states that to improve in walking, you must walk. This is known as "specificity of exercise." By training in the exercise that we wish to improve, we achieve the greatest success. Finally, he states that speed depends on two factors: the length of the stride and the frequency with which the steps are taken. This simple premise is equally true today.

Study of Walking

Initially walking wasn't really studied, assumptions were made about the proper style of walking. These assumptions were backed up by assumptions of how the body worked, but not backed up by any analytical methods to determine efficiency or changes in walking speed. Observations and trial and error added to the knowledge in the walking world. As technology improved, so did the methods of analysis. The uses of photographic equipment, both still and motion picture, contributed greatly to the ability to analyze walking gait. Interestingly, the early methods of studying gait with motion pictures still has merit today. Walkers were dressed in contrasting colors to add clarity to the photos, using dots on the joints and white lines on the limbs, stick figures were drawn from the motion pictures that told the tale of someone's gait. Today we have sophisticated devices that can track the body through three dimensions and depict the pressure the foot exerts on the ground as we progress through our gait. All this information is fed into a computer and still we have only scratched the surface for studying race walking.


MacFadden's timeless bit of advice in walking is, go out and walk! All walking coaches agree this simple statement as a prescription for success in walking. So take the advice and go out and walk.

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