When working with racewalkers--particularly with older racewalkers--one often encounters difficulty in helping the athlete to overcome knee-straightening problems. Although some athletes simply need to be shown the proper technique, many need to overcome more fundamental impediments before full straightening can be achieved. The unfortunate reality, however, is that very few sources actually outline procedures to conquer "creeping sickness." Much like Ross Perot's crazy aunt in the basement, everybody knows there's a problem but nobody wants to talk about it. This article may help to open the floor to further discussion.
The first order of business is to determine if the walker is physically able to straighten the knees. Simply have the athlete stand "at attention" with feet together and legs straightened as much as possible without excessively tightening the quadricep muscles. The fronts of the thighs and shins should make a straight line in relation to one another, or even bow inwards to meet the knee. (Be sure to examine the front of the legs--pronounced calf and hamstring musculature will cause the back of the legs to appear bent even when the knee is fully straightened). If the legs are fully extended and the knees still look bent, tight muscles are probably to blame. After 20-80 years of ordinary walking as well as running, fitness walking or even advanced competitive sedentarianism, many athletes are plagued by such tight leg muscles that full straightening--even while standing--may be difficult.
Other athletes have no obvious muscular tightness, and are able to straighten when standing, but fall into a "Groucho Marx Shuffle" when racewalking. These athletes need remedial work in the mechanics of racewalking. They often come from running backgrounds and are using the wrong muscles to drive themselves forward--primarily the quadriceps. This generally leads to a high knee lift with the leading leg which makes straightening on contact difficult.
Many of these athletes are able to pick up proper racewalking technique by simply watching and mimicking athletes with efficient technique. Running should not be used as a cross training exercise until proper racewalk technique is fully ingrained.
One thing to note is that the lead leg should be driven forward with the knee bent at about 90 degrees. By bending the knee fully and driving the knee forward (rather than up) the lower leg gains a great deal of momentum when the thigh stops andvancing and begins to pull back just before heel-contact.
If the creeping problem can be attributed to muscular tightness, stretching the hamstring and calf muscles may solve the problem. After warming up, the athlete should stretch the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles of the calf by performing "wall stretches." The left gastrocnemius is stretched by standing with the left leg about two feet behind the right and leaning against a wall while keeping the rear heel on the ground (figure A). Slightly bending the knee, (figure B), will stretch the soleus. Switch legs to stretch the right calf.
To stretch the hamstrings the walker should lie on his back with one knee bent, foot on the floor and the other leg extended (figure C). The extended leg is grasped with both hands until a stretch is felt.
All stretches should be held for at least 10-20 seconds. Athletes should stretch after every workout, but if time does not permit, at least three days per week should be devoted to an overall stretching/strengthening routine. These stretches, in addition to proper warm up before workouts and races, should help to reduce stiffness that may lead to bent knees.
After objectively assessing the reasons behind a particular walker's creeping tendencies, it is often relatively easy to eliminate the problem. If the athlete's technique is a hybrid of running and walking elements, flaws can be eliminated by demonstration of the proper technique. If tightness and weakness are to blame, the walker must take remediation into his own hands by thoroughly stretching and strengthening the affected areas. In all case, however, patience and persistence are generally rewarded by better, faster and more legal racewalk technique.
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