Race-walkers trumpet sport’s health benefits

Published in the Sports section of Centretown News.
Feb. 25, 2005.

Roger Burrows wears a maroon windbreaker and track pants with sturdy sneakers as he strolls at a leisurely pace, breath steaming against the brisk air as he talks. Picking up his arms to chest level, he shortens his stride into quick, little steps while driving his foot along the ground, increasing his speed until it almost matches that of a runner.

This is race-walking.

It’s a sport that’s become increasingly popular in the past five years, says Burrows. This is especially true amongst the baby-boomer set and those who want the health benefits, but not the injuries and muscular strains, of running.

“It’s walking stripped down and tuned up, just like one would tune up a racing car,” he says. “It’s the Ferrari of walking.”

He says a good race-walker is slower than the equivalent level of a runner by only one minute per kilometre.

This means that while an elite female runner might run 10 kilometres in 40 minutes, an elite female race-walker might take 50 minutes to cover the same distance.

Burrows, who has worked with Athletics Canada and now runs the Bytown Walkers group, says running is essentially a series of jumps, which can stress the muscles considerably.

“By far the most dramatic muscular activity in running is the act of landing on each stride,” he says, demonstrating the movement. “If I’m walking, I’m simply putting my foot down, and there’s no more weight or stress on my muscle – it’s just one times my body weight. But if you’re running at a considerable speed, it’s up to three times your body weight.”

Race-walking can be an intense physical workout, Burrows says, but unlike running, it’s one in which injuries are not typical.

Dr. Bernie Lalonde, who has been a sports physician at the Carleton University Sports Medicine Clinic for 30 years, says he can’t recall anyone coming in with race-walking injuries.

“I can only speculate that any injuries would be overuse injuries related to the lower extremities like the foot and ankle — tendonitis, reactions to the bone,” he says.

Both agree, however, that the health benefits are many.

Burrows explains that race-walking uses all muscles, thereby making them stronger. This improves the cardiovascular system – the heart and lungs – as it works to provide fuel to the working muscles, beginning a positive cycle.

Weight loss may also occur, although race-walkers are more likely to gain or maintain their weight because of the development of muscle, which is heavier than fat.

Burrows, who has coached runners as well as three-time Olympic race-walker Janice McCaffrey from Calgary, also recommends race-walking for runners as a means of staying fit while recovering from injury.

Beyond the physical effects, there are also psychological benefits, says one longtime race-walker.
Eileen Sarkar has been race-walking with Burrows for seven years, even before the Bytown Walkers group began in 2003. Sarkar, 62, set a new Canadian record for the 60- to 64-year-old age category in race-walking at the 2004 Canadian Masters Championship in Calgary, walking three kilometres in 19 minutes and 50 seconds.

Sarkar, who is also an assistant deputy minister in the Canadian Heritage department and a Centretown resident, says the competitiveness and goal-oriented nature of race-walking appealed to her when she first started. She also liked that she could do it “any time, any place, and by myself,” unlike some other sports.

She says the sport has become a part of her identity and has helped her develop the mental toughness, as well as the physical strength of a competitive athlete. This has spilled over into her work and personal life.

“It’s an integration of the brain, the body and the spirit into a ‘can do’ attitude,” she says. “I imagine success, I set myself goals. I don’t think about failure, I think about strategies to win.”
Burrows says he expects more walkers will take part in organized running events and hopes to see an event specifically for walkers.

For him, the excitement is in seeing people develop to their fullest potential through this sport, whether through taking part in local competitions like the National Capital Marathon, or following in the footsteps of his Olympian protege.

“This is about us interacting with our environment and the planet in a positive way, using our God-given talents and getting off our butts,” he says. “It’s so cool seeing (people) using the talent they do have.”

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