How and why top-level race walkers get injured was the subject of a new study by Dr Brian Hanley

Race walking is an endurance activity with very specific technical rules. It is possible that the abnormal movement of the knee, as it is kept straight under the body, and the need to avoid visible loss of contact can cause race walkers to experience particular injuries above and beyond those experienced by other track and field athletes.

Most of the problems are overuse injuries caused by repetitive stresses on muscles and tendons and the greater training volumes of elite race walkers serves to intensify these risks. A recent study by myself and colleagues at Leeds Beckett University, published in the IAAF’s scientific journal New Studies in Athletics, looked at the training practices of international race walkers and the injuries they typically suffered. So what did we find?

Looking for answers

We distributed a questionnaire to competitors at various international race walk events between 2012 and 2014. It was also made available via an online survey website in English, French, German, Russian and Spanish. A total of 71 men and 41 women from 28 nations completed the questionnaire, providing details such as personal best times as well as training and injury information.

The average age for beginning race walk training was 15 years for both men and women. On average, men completed nine race walk training sessions a week while women completed seven.

Training volume

From the data we collected, we realised that the volume of training among the elite walkers was similar to that for other endurance events like the 10,000m running race or marathon. Men who competed only over 10km or 20km averaged 97km a week in training, while those who specialised over 50km completed in excess of 50% more (154km). Women, who currently compete over 20km in major competitions, averaged 84km a week. Although those 20km men and women who covered most distance in training were the fastest, the same was surprisingly not true of the 50km men, and so there might be a limit to the benefits gained from increasing training distances (especially if it results in a restricted focus on speed).

However, the distance of the single longest training session per week (averaging about 40km), was important for men competing over 50km and showed the key role of that long session in successful preparation. In terms of additional training, 80% of those surveyed ran regularly, 64% carried out resistance training, 43% swam, 30% cycled and 6% did cross-country skiing. Some race walkers also reported undertaking activities such as yoga (13%) and Pilates (5%).

Prevalence of injuries

In total, 59% of men were injured at least once in the previous year, while 66% of women suffered at least one injury during the same period. In general, injuries to the most affected sites required medical treatment or time off training, with nearly half disrupting training for more than three weeks.

The most commonly injured sites were the hamstrings, knee, foot, shin and ankle, in that order. While there were few abdominal injuries, the pelvis and back were both frequently injured, possibly due to a combination of the impact forces experienced and the exaggerated movements of the hips and trunk.

It might be possible for race walkers to reduce impact forces by training on softer surfaces such as grass. However, given major championship race walk events are held on roads, it was not surprising that most athletes (98%) used this surface in training. It was interesting, though, that approximately two thirds of race walkers also used more compliant athletics tracks and this might help reduce the risk of some injuries (although care must be taken to vary the direction taken around the track when completing long distances to avoid overstressing one leg).

Most common problems

Injuries to the hamstring muscles were widespread and might have been caused by the eccentric contraction when the leg is swinging forwards, similar to that reported for other track athletes. Additionally, because the knee must be straightened by heel strike, this abnormal feature of race walking might be partly responsible for the strain on these key muscles. Young athletes with a history of hamstring injuries should therefore be particularly careful when considering race walking as an event, and coaches should note that strength training of these muscles is a particularly important aspect of race walk training that even world-class athletes cannot neglect.

It was unsurprising that the knee, ankle and foot were so frequently injured in race walking given the multiple and repetitive actions of the legs over such long distances in training and competition. With regard to shin problems, the added burden on the ankle to ensure ground clearance in race walking might greatly stress the shin muscles and cause the high incidence of pain found in them.

What can be done?

We concluded that improved training for the lower leg muscles – for example, through gradual progression of walking distances and speed – is necessary to reduce the risk of injury to these key muscles and joints.

In particular, a gradual build-up of training volume and pace should be undertaken by those new to the event or when returning to training after a rest period. Men and women have very similar race walking movement patterns and it is therefore not surprising that similar injuries occur despite differences in training volume and race speeds.

What our survey demonstrated is that there’s no difference between men and women in terms of participating in resistance training, and indeed no gender differences for any other aspect. In short, both men and women need to undertake preventative measures including appropriate strength and conditioning programmes in order to avoid the recurrent injury trap.

» Dr Brian Hanley is a senior lecturer in sport and exercise biomechanics at Leeds Beckett University and a level-2 endurance coach. If you would like a copy of his study, please contact him via email: b.hanley@leedsbeckett.ac.uk