Older Walkers and Knees

Can older walkers be expected to straighten the knee while racewalking?

There has been a bit of discussion lately on the internet on the topic of bent knees in older racewalkers. I would like to paraphrase some of the more sensible comments into a series of Questions and Answers. Special mention to Mark Donahoo (Aust) and Bonnie Stein (USA) whose comments I have pinched and reused.

What is the current standard of masters walking in Australia?

Mark Donahoo advises that when he was Chief Judge for the Masters 10km race last year in Melbourne, 90% of the walkers had straight knees including the 85yr old lady and the 90 yr old gentleman. Although they were not very fast, they still used a walking style with straightened knees. In Victoria, we do have problems with a number of older walkers, but in general the knees are only a problem of those who are pushing too hard or trying to go faster than their fitness and ability will allow them.

Should the rules be modified to allow veteran walkers to walk with a bent leg?

Very few walkers are unable to walk correctly if they are willing to put in the time and training that's required. That's the problem. Some masters walkers are unwilling to take the time to do the hard work to do this. If you are much slower legal than illegal, but this was the only way you can compete without being DQed, accept this humble fall in velocity. With a proper technique, your speed will improve with time and you will have the satisfaction of knowing that your walking is within the rules.

Can older walkers actually walk with proper technique?

Well, of course they can. Just have a look at the style of people like Jack Webber (82 years old) and Tom Daintry (86 years old). Here are some older walkers who have perfect technique. Living proof that, barring physical disability, all things are possible.

Well, what work is required to fix up a bad knee action?

Here are some ideas put forward by Bonnie Stein.

  • Slow down enough initially to practice correct straight leg technique. If they would only do so, they would find that they would be faster with good technique than with bent knees.
  • Take the time necessary to stretch and work on flexibility of the hamstrings. Tight hamstrings are a limiting factor in knee straightening. As we age we become less flexible and it becomes a challenge to continually work on flexibility. However, it can be done. And it's not that difficult.
  • Stop overstriding. Planting the heel closer to one's center of gravity will result in a straighter knee. Way too many new racewalkers (especially former runners) tend to overstride making it harder to have a straight knee as the heel contacts the ground.
  • Drink enough water! That's right. Dehydration is a factor regarding flexibility. Muscles are about 70% water. As we age, we need to drink more water to keep up with hydration needs. Also as we age we lose our desire for water and the thirst mechanism is not as effective. I find that many beginning racewalkers (masters, especially) need to be reminded to drink more water.

Let's be more specific. What about some exercises and specific techniques?

OK. Bonnie Stein gives some more specific guidelines for those who need it spelt out.

  • First you have to ask that person if he is willing to work on getting a straight knee. For an older walker, who is not very flexible, I'm not just talking about a couple of weeks. It could take months to regain flexibility. I've had some younger walkers who are not willing to put forth the effort. So, they'll continue to get DQed. Some walkers don't think it's worth the effort to put in the time. They're content to pray for lenient judges and take their chances.
  • Here's how to tell if an older walker is able to straighten. Have them stand in place and straighten their knees. Can they do that? If they can do it standing, they can do it while moving once they have the muscle strength (in the anterior tibialis to dorsiflex the foot) and the muscle flexibility (in the hamstrings and calves.)
  • Once you identify that they can straighten their knees while standing, next I have them walk on their heels with the toes up. They hate this. Can they keep straight knees? The answer is yes (99% of the time) but it's hard to do if their shin muscle (the tibialis anterior) is weak. It will usually be weak if they are accustomed to walking flatfooted.
  • Next, from the heel walking have him start racewalking slowly for 10 meters or so, then go back to heel walking for a few steps, then back to racewalking, then back to heel walking. Do it over and over so he can get the feeling. For a while I would suggest no competition. Why? When these competitive people get into a race, they revert right back to their old bent knee habits so that old Harry won't get ahead of them.
  • So, if that older walker hasn't left the track yet after you've made him go through this testing maybe you've got a willing participant. Have him stretch EVERY DAY. Especially the hamstrings and the calves. There's some controversy regarding how to stretch, but I just vote for stretching. I like plain old static stretching which has served me very well for almost 13 years. I recommend Bob Anderson's book "Stretching" which is available at most book stores. There are other sources: stretching with ropes (assisted stretching), partner stretching, PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation) stretching, two second, three second, four second, ten second stretching and so on and so on. Again, just stretch. If a person gets turned on to stretching with ropes I'm content - - - as long as they stretch. My only two recommendations about stretching: Warm up before you stretch and no ballistic stretching.
  • Next, strengthen the shin muscles. There are lots of good ideas for this one.
  • If you have access to a video camera one of the best things you can do is video tape them and let them see what their bent knees look like. Then show them what a straight knee looks like with you on tape and with them walking on their heels.

Tim Erickson 03 April 1997