She owns several American records, she’s competed at two Olympic Games, and she can cover 20 kilometers a lot faster walking than most people can run the same distance. But what Maria Michta-Coffey really wants is for more people to learn about race walking rather than mock it.
“I wish that people were aware that just because everybody can walk doesn’t mean that anybody can be a race walker. A lot of people can drive a car, but not everybody can jump in and race NASCAR, ”the Long Island, New York, native said. “If people actually asked questions and got to know me, got to know race walking, see the training and mileage, they’d gain some more respect. It’s another discipline of track and field. It’s not a different sport. It’s an event, and it’s one that’s very technical. ”
Among Michta-Coffey’s seven national records are the 20K in 1:30:49 (average of 7:18 per mile) and the 15K in 1:07:51 (average 7:16 per mile). She was 22 years oldwhen at the Rio Olympics in the 20K a year ago.
Race walking recently received more attention — and a bit of scrutiny — when Tom Bosworth of Great Britain set the world record for race walking the mile in 5: 31.08. The event was held during prime time at a Diamond League meet in London and the distance is not contested often, drawing discussion about race walking technique and rules to the forefront.
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How does an athlete become a race walker? Why would somebody walk as fast (or faster) than most people run? What are the judges looking for and why do some competitors get disqualified?
Michta-Coffey, 31, who has earned a Ph.D. in biomedical science at Mount Sinai Medical School, was more than happy to explain it all before leaving for London to compete on August 13 at the world championships.
How does somebody become a race walker?
In high school, Michta-Coffey was primarily a soccer player who joined the indoor track team to stay in shape. In New York, race walking is offered at the high school level, and her coach made everybody try all events. Right off the bat she showed promise as a freshman, and she counts herself lucky that she grew up in an area where race walking is even part of the school track program. It’s offered only in select locations around the country, including Maine, parts of Texas, and North Carolina, and only for girls in New York.
“What has kept me going to this day is having that exposure in high school, just enjoying it because it was fun, I was staying in shape and making friends,” she said. “The big drawback for us in the US is that we don’t have race walking in the NCAA system.”
So Michta-Coffey stayed local for college and remained with her high school coach for training. She ran cross country and track for Long Island University, which gave her a partial athletic scholarship and an additional academic scholarship to cover the rest.
“Sometimes the coaches just said, ‘Michta, we just need you to get the baton around the track,'” she said. “I went on to grad school — I was able to live off my stipend which afforded me the ability to keep training [in race walking]. ”
If race walking opportunities are so limited, how stocked is the pipeline of talent into the sport?
Outside of the school systems, some regions have track clubs that support race walking, like in Ohio and Illinois. Retaining talent through the Olympic level is problematic, especially because younger walkers are offered only 1500-meter and one-mile races but the standard distances later on are 20K and longer.
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“We’re expecting athletes to make such a big jump,” Michta-Coffey said. “Can you imagine if we didn’t have running in the NCAA, and we took kids from a few states running 1500 meters and expected them to be medaling at the Olympics in the 10K or marathon? Good luck. ”
It’s not all bad news, though. In the time since she started race walking, Michta-Coffey said she’s seen more interest and financial support becoming available. And if somebody is interested in giving race walking a try and can’t find any resources, “hit me up on my website,” she said.
Why walk so fast instead of run?
Most people who’ve ever seen race walking in action assume it’s “just walking.” But there is much more to the event. And no — even if it appears a race walker is running, he or she is not.
“Most of the population probably doesn’t really know how to swim. They’re unaware of what the different strokes are. Freestyle is kind of like running — everybody has a different stride and mechanics; there’s no set rules, ”Michta-Coffey said.
“But then you have the breaststroke, which has very precise rules about how you’re allowed to compete. Both hands have to touch the wall when you turn, you have to glide a certain way, and this makes breaststroke slower than freestyle — because it’s more technical. For us, race walking is technical because there are rules, so it’s slower than running. You’re still pushing your body to the limit and maximizing efficiency as best as possible. ”
What are the main rules?
The two rules that separate race walking from running:
1. Race walkers have to maintain contact with the ground. At all times, one foot needs to be on the ground.
2. The knee must straighten when the foot contacts the ground. When the foot lands, it strikes the ground with the heel, the toe flexed upward. The leg remains straightened in that position until it passes beneath and behind you.
How are these rules enforced?
Officials are stationed on the course or around the track, watching to make sure athletes don’t violate the rules.
“The violations are enforced by the naked eye,” Michta-Coffey said. “The officials are trained, certified at the highest level, but it’s not enforced by a video camera or film that somebody can capture a frame-per-second that might show a fraction of a second where somebody might not have contact with the ground. ”
Race walkers receive red cards for any violations that are spotted. If they receive three red cards in a race, they are disqualified.
“It’s like umpiring in baseball. It’s real-time, ”she said. “You’ll always see after a race somebody posting a picture of somebody who might be off the ground, which opens up a can of worms.”
One way that the event may evolve, though, is through a shoe sensor that is in development. It would set a certain threshold to measure contact with the ground and send a signal to the athlete’s wrist device if an infraction occurs. The knee straightening would still need to be judged by humans, however.
How do you train?
Just like runners run during training, race walkers walk in training. They do speed workouts, easy walks, and long walks, just like runners prepare for long distances. Michta-Coffey race walks seven days per week and twice a week has an additional shake-out session, which she often runs instead of walks.
A typical workout is something like: 5K, 4K, 3K, 1K intervals at 20K race pace (with warm up and cool down), followed by an afternoon easy 6K run.
“The firing patterns are different from running. Race walking uses the hamstrings and glutes to power you through, ”Michta-Coffey said. “Running you have that pounding down with a bent knee, which engages the quad, then spring up. So if you can run and walk in training, they can complement one another. ”
A glimpse at a week of training: Monday is an interval workout followed by a second run or cross training; Tuesday is 20K walk (if race pace is around 7:15 per mile, then easy pace is around 8: 40–9 minutes per mile); Wednesday is 12K easy; Thursday is another speed workout (maybe 5 x 2K / 5 x 1K with warm up and cool down) plus another 6K easy run in the afternoon; Friday is 20–25K easy; Saturday 15–18K easy; Sunday is 12K easy. (That’s about 80-85 miles per week.)
Do race walkers wear running shoes?
Michta-Coffey prefers to wear the New Balance 860 series for training. She races in the New Balance 1500 series, which is lightweight with a bit of cushion and like a marathon racing shoe, which is the kind most of her competitors also use.
“A lot of race walkers train in the same shoes they race in,” she said. “My training shoes last about a month. If I went with something less, I’d wear through them sooner and feel discomfort sooner. They’re bulkier shoes. ”
Do race walkers get injured like runners do?
Because they train for longer distances like 20K and 50K, race walkers also find themselves with repetitive-use injuries. The difference from running injuries, though, is where the injuries occur.
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IT Band injuries are common among race walkers, as are shin (anterior tibialis) muscle problems, as well as various foot issues. The event is a bit more forgiving on the body than running, in general, because it’s not as jarring.
“We do a lot of cross training and lifting, too,” Michta-Coffey said. “Anything in the gym can open you up to an acute injury.”
What is the hardest part of a race for walkers?
The fatigue factor toward the end of a distance event can bring down even the best runners. Imagine, then, if they also had to maintain the correct form while feeling so drained.
“Remember at the Olympics when there were a few dives for the finish line? If that happened in race walking… well, you can’t do that, ”she said. “As the body breaks down you still have to maintain the technical element. It’s like the steeplechase — you still have to maintain form to get up and over the barrier when you’re fatigued. It’s challenging and taxing. ”
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