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Walk the walk

It's not quite walking or running either. With arms stuck out at odd angles, it even looks funny. But speed walking is a great exercise that's easy on your knees, suggests Sai Raje.

travel Updated: Dec 05, 2009 12:07 IST

At first glance, it seems like a bizarre cross between a duck's waddle and the graceful gait of a fisherwoman in fast-forward. Don't know what we are talking about? Think Billy Crystal wearing spandex and walking through Central Park with his best pal in that scene from When Harry Met Sally. Okay, maybe Billy Crystal in spandex is not a nice thought, but you get what we mean about speed walking.

Also known as race walking, power walking and health walking, speed walking has been an Olympic athletics event for decades now, though it hasn't become as popular as walking and jogging for everyday exercise.

Simply put, speed walking is about walking fast without breaking into a jog or a run. But the strides you take have to follow a specific technique and there are rules to follow (like the fact that one foot must be in contact with the ground at all times).

Why walk or jog when you can speed walk?

If you consider the benefits speed walking offers over regular walking and even running, you wonder why it hasn't taken off like it should have.

"Running involves you jumping off the ground mid-stride, which means your feet hit the ground with great impact on your knees, increasing injury risk," says Gurdev Singh (32), national level speed walking champion and currently coach to 11 national level speed walking champions. Speed walking, on the other hand, says Singh, is low-impact and therefore poses a far lesser risk of injury to your knees. It's the perfect exercise for those who're weak in the knees.

It's also fantastic for developing cardiovascular fitness or heart strength, adds Singh. "A seasoned speed walker strides with an intensity that has his pulse rate fluctuating between 140-160 beats per minute. This is the range you want to exercise in to ensure maximum fat burn," he says.

Regular speed walking also keeps your blood sugar levels in check and is a good way for diabetics to stay fit as well.

Cardiovascular workout And flexibility aid too Babubhai Panocha (31), the reigning national speed walking champion, who broke Gurdev Singh's speed walking record (20 km in 1:25:21) by clocking in 1:23: 40 in 2007, says that speed walking has worked wonders for his body's flexibility. "Regular speed walking makes you as flexible as a gymnast. My body bends, twists and turns like rubber," he says. Panocha also feels that speed walking offers more fitness benefits as a form of exercise than normal walking, and helps you burn almost as much energy as running.

It's great exercise, but you STILL need to eat right "As with any exercise, if you want to take up speed walking to lose weight, you have to lower your fat intake as much as you can. What's the point of doing a 5 km speed walk in the morning and then gorging on buttered toasts and parathas?" says Panocha.

While competitive speed walking is done on both roads and synthetic racetracks, grassy surfaces are ideal for a novice learning to speed walk, at least for the first couple of months.

"It's a softer surface that is even more low-impact than tarmac on your knees, which is useful when you are still perfecting your posture and stride technique," says Singh.

There's no denying that it looks hilarious, but if you overcome your hesitation, you'll find that speed walking is better exercise than regular walking, and easier on your knees than running. And once you start reaping the benefits, others won't be laughing any more!

Get the basics

Warm up

Basic stretching exercises followed by a light walk ensure you don't strain any muscle while speed walking.

Concentrate on your arm movement

Arms should be held a little above chest level and should be swinging in the same rhythm as the legs. Speed walking requires steady, strong swing of the arms in order to help maintain momentum and balance.

Pick up the pace

Start making your movements faster. At this point, you will feel the cardiovascular workout. You may be a little out of breath, but you should not be so winded that you have difficulty talking. If you have breathing trouble, stop immediately. One foot should be in contact with the ground at all times. In competitive speed walking, losing contact with the ground thrice means disqualification.

Lengthen your regular stride

Stretch your legs until your steps cover more ground that you usually do with each step. This brings your body lower to the ground and increases speed. Your overall body posture should be straight with your upper body slightly bent forward to give momentum. From the point that the heel of your foot touches the ground to the point that the toes lift off, the knee should be locked straight.

Cooling down

Once you have completed the workout, cool down by taking 40 or 50 slower steps. Gradually decrease speed. Keep walking until breathing and heart rate have returned to normal.

Water works

It may seem obvious -- you need to drink water. But don't take this simple thing for granted.

How much water should a normal person drink?

Around six glasses a day are usually enough for a normal person, keeping in mind heat and humidity. That translates into nearly 1.8 to 2 litres a day. This will vary according to climate and individual needs.

If I'm into sports?

Your fluid intake will vary according to factors like the intensity of the sport and climate. The warmer the environment, the more fluids you need. If you're into tennis or soccer, you may go through 2-3 litres of water in just one match. Sports like golf may be relatively slow-paced, but you still need to drink at least half a litre of fluid per half an hour of activity to prevent dehydration.

Is water good enough or do I need a sports drink?

An athlete loses up to 1.5 litres in sweat per intensive training session longer than an hour.

You also lose essential salts and minerals, which can precipitate dehydration. So as a sportsperson, your fluid intake should include not just water at regular intervals but also sports drinks that contain electrolytes to replenish your mineral levels.

How do I choose the best sports drink?

Unfortunately, in India, there isn't a whole lot you can choose from when it comes to sports drinks. If you're a beginner, the simplest, most readily available option is Gatorade, which is simply a combination of water and carbohydrates. If you want to build muscle, you can opt for drinks that have a high percentage of protein. Take your trainer's guidance to choose the right protein drink.

How much before training?

Don't crash drink a large amount of water just before you start an activity as this can lead to stomach cramps. Instead, start drinking small amounts of fluid from the start of the day so that by the time you get to the actual workout, you are well hydrated.

During a workout?

Dehydration can affect your performance adversely, so make sure you keep taking small mouthfuls of water throughout the activity. Physios recommend that the sports drinks you consume during training should contain some amount of carbohydrates. If you're into endurance sports like marathon running, your sports drink should contain some protein and fat too.

And after the Workout...

You should ideally have a recovery drink , which is a combination of carbohydrates and proteins. If you're sticking to water, drink two to three glasses.

Figuratively speaking

Intense workout

In the Indian climate, a safe rule of thumb for an athlete doing a workout pushing his heart rate to 170-180 bpm, for 30 minutes, is that he wou