Racewalking vs Running: What’s the Difference?

Recently I was asked, “I find more benefits in running, so what is the difference between running and racewalking?” This is a brilliant question because even though walking is one of the best forms of exercise for weight loss, most people still don’t believe it provides an adequate workout and within the track & field community, race walking is considered the “stepchild” of the track events so here’s my response.

From sports commentators to the “average Joe” on the street who has never racewalked one yard, racewalking is primarily mocked in the United States presumably because of the “funny” way it looks. It is revered and supported in other countries by men and women who dominate the sport by walking sub five and six minute miles for 10k and 20k events. Americans are nowhere near the top 20 athletes in the world for the race walk and didn’t even qualify for the last Olympics. It is also interesting to note that the United States leads the world in obesity.

Calorie Expenditure & Weight Loss
Walking can be one route to optimum health and weight loss. In over 20 years, I have yet to see an overweight racewalker! The key is speed. Since it takes 3,500 calories to burn one pound, the more challenging the walking speed, the greater the amount of calories burned. While a runner can burn several hundred calories, racewalkers can burn up to 1,000 calories in one workout. A power walker can max out at five miles per hour, but that can be the warm-up for a racewalker!

The energy expenditure on a run is primarily from the lower extremities, whereas racewalking activates and stimulates muscles in the entire body. Pumping them toward the back strengthens the arms. In race walking, because the “funny” front/back rotation originates from the hips, the shorter the stride, the faster the walk. This stretches the hips simultaneously, keeps them strong and flexible leaving the hips less prone to injury and as a bonus, this motion, melts unwanted fat from the midsection revealing the desired six-pack abs while producing a smaller waist in the process. What’s not to love about that?

Race walking builds cardiovascular endurance and lowers your resting heart rate. A gauge for determining calorie expenditure and intensity is the heart. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, the intensity of the heart rate should be between 50 – 85% of the heart rate maximum during exercise. An easy way to determine this is by performing the “talk test.” During exercise, if the walker finds it a challenge to maintain nonstop conversation, this is a good indicator that the heart rate is elevated and the body is working with manageable effort. However, the walker should not be gasping for air.

Major Distinction

According to Gary Westerfield, IAAF Race Walking Judge – United States of America, the primary difference between race walking and running is contraction of the quadriceps muscles. In running, these muscles contract to stabilize the leg in order to prevent the person from falling to the ground. In race walking, the hamstring muscles are activated in order to fully extend the leg thereby locking the knee, which inactivates the opposing quadriceps muscles. The rules of race walking are far more stringent than for running. Since running has been widely researched and information on this topic is ubiquitous, the focus of this discussion will be key advantages specific to race walking.


Typically, when the average person begins to run, there’s usually no thought given to form or technique. The same holds true for speed walking and power walking. They just do it. Although running at a more elite level requires more aerodynamic expertise, if the technically demanding rules of race walking are not strictly adhered to at all times, then one is just considered walking fast or speed/power walking. In running, the quadriceps (front of the thigh) and gastrocnemius (calf) muscles are activated, whereas in race walking, the hamstrings (back of the thigh) and tibialis anterior (shin) muscles are utilized.

Runners typically plant with the ball of the foot hitting the ground first. Some runners strike the ground with the heel or with the flat foot in which case, all of the body weight is transferred to the lower extremities. This constant pounding – especially on concrete – can eventually result in joint injuries. In racewalking, the heel of the foot strikes initially, then rolling over the side of the foot and pushing off the toe. Since the body is “lifted” from the torso, there’s no pressure on the joints or the hip.

The shoulders should remain down and relaxed. The arms provide balance for the legs and placement is at a 90° angle with the hands slightly closed and thumbs resting gently on the bent index fingers. The pump of the arm swing is behind the body and not the front as in other movements. Some people have a tendency to walk with the head lowered. Not only can you not see where you’re going, by the head being lowered, oxygen becomes somewhat constricted. By making simple adjustments in stride length and step frequency, one can race walk at a much faster speed than power/speed walking. As a matter of fact, even a recreational racewalker can produce speeds comparable to a light jog.

What to Wear

I find that the less I wear, the better I feel. In cooler months, athletic clothing with fabric that is lighter and wicks moister away while keeping the body warm is ideal but not essential. The most important item to wear is the shoe. The right shoe is critical and should have flexibility, support and breathability. Walkers impact the ground with less than half the force of runners, so excessive cushioning is unnecessary therefore, the best shoe for racewalking must have a low heel in order to plant the heel properly, a wide toe box to prevent cramped toes. Wearing the wrong shoe can result in black toenails and blisters.


What questions do you have regarding racewalking, walking, fitness or nutrition? Have you been walking and have reached a plateau? Leave me a comment and let’s continue the conversation.