Racing 31 miles on foot is no easy feat.
And let’s say you also have to always have at least one foot on the ground. And your knee has to be locked straight whenever you take a step forward. And you can’t float mid-stride to propel yourself forward.
This is what happens in the Olympic race walk, where competitors break seven-minute miles under these constraints. It’s like if NASCAR drivers had to drive with the parking brake engaged.
In 1908, race walking made its Summer Olympics debut in London as a standalone sport, with a men’s 10-miler. (Technically it made its debut in the 1904 games as one leg of the “all-rounder,” which is like today’s decathlon.) Women didn’t compete in the race walk until the Barcelona Games in 1992.
At the Rio Olympics, there are three walking contests: a men’s and women’s 20-kilometer (12.4-mile) race, and a men’s 50-kilometer (31-mile) race.
Like all great sports, race walking pushes the human body to an extreme, as we explain in the video above.
Race walking dates back to 16th-century England, when noblemen would “bet large sums on match races arranged between their footmen,” according to The Complete Guide to Racewalking: Technique and Training.
In the 1800s, pedestrianism – as the sport was called then – took the United States by storm. Racers would compete in ultra-long-distance circuits – sometimes hundreds of miles over the course of several days. Onlookers would bet on the winners.
Matthew Algeo, a journalist who wrote a history of the pedestrianism craze, described for NPR a typical scene in the 1870s and 1880s:
It was a real spectacle. There were brass bands playing songs; there were vendors selling pickled eggs and roasted chestnuts. It was a place to be seen. There were a lot of celebrities who attended the matches: James Blaine, the senator from Maine, was a fan. So was future president Chester Arthur. Tom Thumb attended many matches. And so people went to see celebrities and see the show, not just to watch the people walk.
How race walkers learned to wiggle
For most of race walking’s history, the technique was really simple: Just walk, fast.
Then in the 1960s, one man changed the face of race walking forever.
His name was Jerzy Hausleber, a Polish walking enthusiast who moved to Mexico in order to create the world’s most dominant race walking force. Hausleber, who died in 2014, is sometimes called “el padre de la marcha,” or the father of the walk.
Before Hausleber, race walking was dominated by tall athletes, as a New York Times retrospective explains. It made sense: Taller walkers had longer strides and could go cover more distance in less time.
What Hausleber discovered is that shorter, more flexible athletes could increase their stride frequency and tease more movement out of every step.
Basically, he taught race walkers how to wiggle. Like so:
“Hausleber came up with the idea of using the pelvis more than had been done previously,” Brian Hanley, a scientist who studies race walking biomechanics at Leeds Beckett University in the UK, tells us.
Today, all race walkers practice a form of Hausleber’s gait, Hanley says. That means:
1) They twist their hips Moreau. Normally people twist their hips 4 degrees when they walk. Race walkers twist closer to 20, which helps them take longer steps.
It is also what gives race walking its odd, almost dancey, motion.
2) They drop their hips lower. This helps keep the walkers’ center of gravity low, and it keeps them from having a jerky gait.
3) They walk in an extremely straight line. This “helps them do that rotation of the pelvis, and it makes their steps longer,” Hanley says. It also makes them look like they’re making a beeline for a toilet.
4) They sneak in some “flight time.”
The most important rule of race walking is that one foot must be on the ground at all times. When there are no feet in the air, that’s called “flight time,” and it’s illegal.
But as with all great rules, there is a loophole. The official rules stipulate that “no visible (to the human eyes) loss of contact occurs.” Lucky for racers, the human eye isn’t all that great at seeing very fast things.
You can be disqualified in race walking
Hanley says most elite race walkers can squeeze in about 40 milliseconds of flight time on each step. This is too fast for the judges to notice, but enough to improve their race times. This is important: Just a little flight time can help extend a walker’s step to give him an edge. “People who have no flight time … they lose out on a lot of ground on the people who do,” he says.
Race walking rules may sound intense, but they’re what make the sport such a grueling contest. Athletes have to maintain perfect form for dozens of miles.
This isn’t the case with running. “You can be pretty bad biomechanically as a runner, and still win,” Hanley says. Walkers, on the other hand, can be disqualified from a race at any time if they’re seen breaking the rules.
“When you people compete for hours and hours in the sun, you can see the real human struggle of it,” Hanley says. “You never know who is going to win because they can always get disqualified. It’s a lot more exciting than a running race.”