Bohlen has been a prosecutor, a budget analyst, a utility regulator and legal counsel for a taxpayer organization. But most of all he has been an athlete. From third grade when he joined the junior high track team, until his knees forced him to give up basketball in his early 50s, he participated in organized sports. He thought his competitive days were over until he discovered racewalking, an activity he found to be kind to his body but as challenging as any sport he had done previously. In August 2009 he won silver and bronze medals in the racewalk events in the 55-59 age group at the National Senior Games at Stanford University. Bohlen felt compelled to share the benefits of racewalking with his fellow baby boomers, and BoomerWalk is the result.
Since my knees have not been my friends for some years now, I was intrigued by the idea I could replace my running with racewalking. But I had questions…quite a few actually. So Brent (we’re on a first name basis now) has been kind enough to take the time to answer them for me.
Here’s the first installment in our two-part interview:
Brent, many of us boomers are still out there pounding the pavement; why do you contend that racewalking would be a better exercise at our age?
Like many baby boomers, I’ve been physically active all my life. In my early 50s my knees couldn’t take the basketball games I loved and running was even worse. I was mourning the loss of fitness and the absence of activities I enjoyed. Then I discovered racewalking, a highly aerobic but low-impact sport that’s been an Olympic event for more than 100 years. I became fitter than I had been in decades, I found an outlet for my competitive nature, and my knees didn’t hurt.
One day it just hit me. This isn’t something that’s just good for me. This would be great for millions of fellow baby boomers. Here’s an activity that is gentle on our aging joints but has all of the cardiovascular benefits of running. It’s gentle on our joints because there’s not a significant “in flight” period where both feet are off the ground as in running or jogging. In fact racewalkers don’t need shoes with thick-cushioned heels like runners and joggers. Lower heels actually help maintain the racewalking technique. But it’s also tremendously aerobic if you push yourself a bit. You can get your heart rate just as high racewalking as you can running. And it’s a weight-bearing exercise, so it’s good for your bones, too.
I began to think globally – I wrote BoomerWalk to spread the word about racewalking to baby boomers everywhere – but I acted locally by teaching others in Springfield, IL, the racewalking technique. Three or four years ago I was the only racewalker in Springfield.mNow more than 100 know the basics of the technique, and some of them formed Abe’s Striders Racewalking Club, which now has more than 30 members. Last spring 15 racewalked half marathons. A year earlier several of them were couch potatoes. One man lost 80 pounds and a woman had to get a new wardrobe before she went off to a conference.
About half of our club members are former runners whose bodies can no longer take the pounding. The other half are people who were pretty much sedentary or were pedestrian walkers who wanted something more aerobic. More than half are women. They are mostly in their 50s, 60s and 70s. A few have become competitive and train for judged racewalks, but most do it for the health benefits, for the camaraderie with the other members and because it’s fun.
Finally, racewalking is something many people can do well into old age. I have two friends in Kansas who are competitive racewalkers in their 90s.
To most of us, running seems natural and it’s easy to get into a rhythm. But, at least outwardly, racewalking doesn’t look like an activity that comes naturally. Isn’t it difficult to find the rhythm necessary to do it?
It does feel awkward at first. You can learn the basics of the racewalking technique in about a half hour and can begin to enjoy the activity. But you can spend the rest of your life perfecting the technique. One of the people I profile in BoomerWalk who learned to racewalk in his 50s said he got faster every year for eight years just because he got better at the technique.
The racewalking technique comes more easily to some people than others. In my experience it seems that women generally pick it up a little more quickly than men – perhaps because women tend to be more flexible. But almost everyone can learn to do it and can make great improvements with concerted effort. I think one of the things that keeps our members fresh is the challenge of improving their technique. Most runners just run the way that they run without thinking about it. Racewalkers think a lot about their technique and try to make themselves as efficient as possible.
The technique also is important if you want to compete because it helps you be a “legal” racewalker if you enter judged races. I want to put in a disclaimer here – most racewalkers seldom participate in judged racewalks. But if you are of a competitive nature, the competition in a judged racewalk can be fierce. One of the differences between running and racewalking is that there is a two-part definition of racewalking. If a racewalker competes in a judged racewalk and three judges cite the participant for violating the definition, then the racewalker is disqualified.
Just what is the two-part definition of racewalking?
The official USA Track & Field definition is pretty legalistic , so I’ll just give the gist of it. The first part is that it must appear to the naked eye that at least one foot is always in contact with the ground, i.e. there can’t be a visible “in flight” period like there is with running. This is the reason why it is low impact. The second part of the definition is that the lead leg must be totally straightened at the knee at the time the heel strikes the ground in front of the body and must remain straightened at least until the leg is vertical under the body. This sounds more difficult to do than it is, so don’t let it scare you off. It feels a little awkward when you start out, but it soon begins to feel more and more natural. The legs and feet of a good racewalker move as smoothly as if he or she were pedaling a bicycle. It’s my personal belief that the straightened knee requirement makes racewalking easier on the knee because there isn’t any stress on the tendons and ligaments from landing on a bent knee.
Has he piqued your interest? The book is available on Amazon, but Brent is offering a special deal on BoomerWalk for bohemian boomer readers: For $15, he’ll send you an autographed copy and include shipping. Send a check for $15 to Brent Bohlen, 3015 Mill Bank Lane, Springfield, IL, 62704.
On Thursday, we’ll continue our conversation. One of the things we were most curious about was whether you could attain a “runners’ high” with racewalking. Check back later this week to hear Brent’s answer.