The Importance of Shin and Ankle Strength for Racewalkers

1995 Dave McGovern--Dave's World Class

Nearly every beginning racewalker has experienced the intense burning in the shins that signals the awakening of long-dormant, even vestigial, anterior tibialis muscles. These muscles are rarely, if ever, activated in any other sport but racewalking, so such pain, although often quite severe, is not surprising. Novice racewalkers are also frequently frustrated by an inefficient, "stumpy" walking style that prevents them from competing with comparably fit, but more economical athletes.

Despite the emphasis many walking coaches and athletes put on hands, arms, elbows, and even noses (!), the feet are the only parts of the body that are in contact with the ground during the walking gait--they play a vital role in both providing propulsive force, and in allowing this force to be transferred into forward momentum. This article will describe how strengthening the muscles of the foot and lower leg can help to eliminate shin pain, and improve walking efficiency, legality and speed.

The Driving vs. Vaulting Phases of the Walking Gait

The stride of a racewalker in motion can be logically broken down into two distinct--albeit intimately connected--phases. These are the driving and vaulting phases. (Some authors call the driving phase the "swing" phase, but that has a very passive connotation. The knees should be driven forward vigorously. Similarly, both phases generate propulsion, so "propulsive" phase is a bit of a mis-nomer. Anyway, the driving phase begins as soon as the rear foot loses contact with the ground. The knee of the rear leg bends to allow the advancing foot to clear the ground, and the leg drives forward. The momentum of the leg's mass driving forward causes the walker's body to fall forward, pivoting about the stationary foot of the other leg:

The vaulting phase, which occurs concurrently with the driving phase, begins as soon as the advancing foot contacts the ground in front of the body. As the heel is "planted," the gluteal muscles contract, helping the body to pivot over the leg. After the body's center of gravity passes over the "planted" foot, the calf muscles contract, flexing the ankle. The rearward drive of the leg, coupled with this explosive ankle plantarflexion provides a strong propulsive force which helps to "vault" the body forward. Pushing off strongly from the rear in this manner allows for a momentary lag in the stride cycle which causes the opposite side of the hip to swing forward, thus extending the walker's effective stride length, and helping to align the feet "on a line," one in front of the other. The explosive push-off also helps to initiate a strong driving phase of the next stride:

Removing Barriers to Fast Racewalking

In addition to necessitating the generation of a great deal of explosive power, high-speed racewalking requires that the athlete remove any barriers that may prevent this power from being translated into forward motion. There is no single "optimum" racewalking style--each walker does the best he or she can given the constraints of their level of conditioning, body type and degree of muscular flexibility. Consequently, video analysis shows that different racewalkers can utilize a variety of different driving-to-vaulting phase ratios in their stride cycles. That is, some walkers tend to generate more power via a strong driving phase, while others benefit from a very strong ankle plantarflexion. Although different coaches may favor one approach over another, all walkers can benefit from improving ankle strength and flexibility because strong foot action is required during all phases of the walking gait:

Pump up Those Tires!

Strong shins and ankles throughout the foot's entire range of motion allow the body to pivot very smoothly over the ankle joint--much like a bicycle tire rolling about the axis of its hub. Racewalking without sufficient shin and ankle strength is like trying to ride a bicycle with two very flat tires--it still works, but you can't "roll" forward very smoothly:

To effectively maintain proper foot placement throughout the stride cycle, shin and ankle strength is imperative. But how can a walker strengthen these muscles? There are a number of drills, resistance training exercises, and other techniques that can be used to build up lower leg and foot strength. Try the following:

To reduce "stumpiness," your feet must be strong, and an active part of the walking motion. Racewalking will eventually strengthen the feet and lower leg muscles, but by adding some of these extra exercises to your daily routine you will be able to drastically reduce the time required to build up these muscles. Reduced shin pain, and more efficient, legal walking technique may be just a couple of feet away!

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