Interview with a competitive Race walker

Tina Peters grew up surrounded by runners and went to college on a track and field scholarship where she gained several titles.  Discovering her interesting background and training knowledge over several massage sessions, I asked Tina if she would be willing to share her experience with our members. Here are her answers. 

Race walking is not as commonly seen as other sports, how did you get into it?

I started race walking when I was 7 years old as part of a USA Track & Field youth club in my home town. My dad was the head coach and worked with the distance runners, steeplechasers, and race walkers. I enjoy both race walking and running and competed in both through middle school and high school, but I had much more success with race walking. I had the thrilling opportunity to travel internationally with the USA Track & Field national team and compete against the best race walkers in the world. I decided to focus on race walking in college and was fortunate enough to receive a scholarship to race walk as a varsity athlete.

One of my first race walk races, a 1500m, when I 8 years old.

You were four time national champion and eight time all-American in college track and field, how do you train at a high level without getting injured?

I have to give a lot of the credit to my coaches, their knowledge and experience were invaluable for a young athlete. Good communication between athlete and coach is necessary and helped to keep me healthy and fast. Maintaining flexibility, hydration, and nutrition are all important lessons I have learned from my coaches.

The athlete’s most important responsibility is to listen to their body. There are always little aches and pains that come and go when you are training, but you need to pay attention to them to make sure they don’t persist and become an injury. You have to be as diligent about your rest as you are your training. I learned this the hard way as a college athlete with classes, living in dorms, and traveling on buses for races. You have to pay attention to your level of fatigue. You can’t over train and come into your important race exhausted or come down with the flu. Rest days aren’t for the weak, they are for the smart.

In college, an indoor 3000m race against some old high school teammates

You run as well, would you recommend race walking as a complement to running?

I definitely would. Race walking is lower impact on the knees than running, helps increase flexibility, and works complementary muscle groups to running. I mostly use running as cross training for race walking or as something fun to do with my friends during my off season from race walking. Race walking also makes excellent cross training for runners. In particular, race walking works your hip flexors, core, and shin muscles, and increases flexibility in the hips and knees. If you race walk regularly you will never get shin splints, a common problem for runners.

How would you recommend getting started for a newbie wannabe race walker?

Serious runners and race walkers both spend a lot of time on technique, but race walking technique is not as intuitive and requires a few lessons to get started out. I like to say running is to race walking as freestyle swimming is to butterfly.

A 5000m race my senior year of high school

There are two rules to race walking: - Race walking is a progression of steps so taken that the walker makes contact with the ground so that no visible (to the human eye) loss of contact occurs. - The advancing leg must be straightened (i.e., not bent at the knee) from the moment of first contact with the ground until in the vertical upright position.
This first rule is what happens if you try to go too fast for your technique. Most elite race walkers have small “flight” stage where they have both feet off the ground, but this is not breaking the rule, since it is so slight that it is not visible to the human eye. This is optimal form, you are going as fast as you can go. Most newbies don’t have to worry about the first rule at all, as you will have to work on building up your speed before you are going fast enough to break the rule and “lift.”

The second rule is the tricky one for newbies and what you will have to focus on to be able to race walk. When your front leg first makes contact with the ground your knee has to be straight and your foot will strike heel first. The knee has to stay straight as the rest of the foot comes in contact with the ground and until the whole leg has moved under your body.

It is easiest to learn this form from another race walker, but if that isn’t possible, from videos and photos. Racewalk.com is an excellent resource for lots of photos explaining race walk form. One of the best youth race walk clubs in the country, the South Texas Walking Club, put together this instructional video: http://youtu.be/JWAwlwIV7mg.

For a couple examples of how the elite walkers look take a look at these videos: Highlights from the Men's 20km Race Walk at the London 2012 Olympics: http://youtu.be/om0KHMdO-kw, the winning time was 1:18:48, which is faster than 20 minutes per 5km the whole way. The High School Girl’s Indoor National Championships in 2014, which is a 1 mile race: http://youtu.be/Q6ufFcD55Vg.

After I graduated from college, I studied to get certified as a race walk judge. Here I am judging a youth meet and showing one of the walkers a caution for being close to breaking the straight knee rule

You are currently finishing your PhD in physics, how do you maintain motivation to train with a busy schedule and icy outdoor temperatures?

Having gone from being a scholarship collegiate athlete to a graduate student training on my own has been a tough transition. When I first started my Ph.D. program I took a break from training to focus solely on academics. I ran with my friends for fun and to take a break from all the physics homework. I also studied to get certified as a race walk judge and helped out judging youth meets.

After that break I was recharged and excited to start training again, but it was harder to maintain motivation to train without my teammates, a fixed practice schedule, and less access to facilities. I’ve had to find more of my motivation inside myself and adapt my training habits to fit less than ideal conditions.

What works best for me is to train first thing in the morning, to make sure that I have as much time as I need. If I wait until the afternoon something is sure to come up at school and the workout won’t happen. I try to find friends to work out with and hold me accountable. There are lots of recreational runners who run at my race walk pace and can keep me company on a long training walk. My most dependable training friend is my dog, he is ready to go every morning no matter how cold it is outside. When it gets really bad it is smarter to just go indoors and cross train. There is no shame in swimming or spinning when the sidewalks are covered in a sheet of ice.

The USA and Canada Junior Women’s race walk teams after an international competition the summer after my first year of college

Thank you so much for sharing!

Race walking is a fun, competitive and challenging cardio workout; try it for a new sport, for a change from running, or to prevent injuries and participate in the many local walking races.