Q&A with Jeff Salvage, Race Walking Expert

by | August 8, 2012 at 3:44 PM | General, Olympics, Sports

By Rupa Mohan, XFINITY.com Contributor

Former international competitor Jeff Salvage is an award winning educator and nationally recognized coach who combines his instructional expertise with his passion for race walking. Salvage tirelessly promotes race walking as a writer, photographer, and webmaster. Founder of www.racewalk.com, creator of the Race Walk Like a Champion book and DVD set, and the “go to” photographer for America’s best race walkers, Salvage has authored/co-authored seven race walking books and published two others in addition to books on a wide variety of subjects.

What persuaded you to get into race walking when so many people get into running?

I was an injured runner in high school, and then took up race walking. Lots of runners gravitate towards race walking after suffering from injuries.

Walking is often dismissed as an everyday activity by many. What defines it as an Olympic-worthy event to you?

Race walking requires a combination of strength, endurance and technique, similar to many other Olympic sports with higher profiles. Not many people know it’s possible to race walk at six minutes per mile–as a high school senior, my time for race walking a 5k race was only one minute slower than my running time overall.

How is race walking different from running?

There are two main rules: race walking is a progression of steps taken so that the walker makes contact with the ground so that no visible loss of contact occurs, and the advancing leg must be straightened (i.e., not bent at the knee) from the moment of first contact with the ground until in the vertical upright position.

In practical terms, these two rules create far more challenges for race walkers than for marathon runners. Race walkers don’t have the option to get tired or lazy towards the end of a race, as they will be disqualified if they don’t stick to the required technique throughout.

What does a typical day for a race walker involve?

There isn’t a typical day. Race walkers usually train via a progressive system over the course of a year incorporating various cycles. We start the year with two base building phases that slowly increase the distance walked per day. Most of the walking in this phase is done at a slow pace and includes hiking. Then we increase the intensity by adding fartlek (a Swedish word which means “speed play”) workouts. These workouts, done twice a week, involve varying the speed of the walk in intervals of faster- and slower-paced walking. The rest of the days are done at a slower pace. Finally, when it’s time to peak, the intensity is notched up to a higher level with speed repeat workouts where you walk at close to race pace for a duration, take a short break and then ramp the speed back up.

As my race walking colleague, and coach of four 2012 Olympians, Tim Seaman says “an athlete doesn’t want to have a few gold medal workout days, they want to have many silver medal days.”

When did you start working with Tim Seaman?

Tim and I have worked together for a number of years–our aim is simply to help the next generation of competitive race walkers. Tim has been working with Olympic race walker Trevor Barron for many years now, and my main contribution has been to collaborate with him on producing a range of books and DVDs; these generate some income so that Tim can focus more time on training up the next generation.

Have you managed to convert a race walking nonbeliever?

A few years ago, I was leading a group of race walkers at Franklin Field and we encountered a local crew team out on a training run who were making jibes at the race walkers during training. I challenged the runners to race me which consisted of various run/walk exercises, and they soon realized once they tried it how difficult it really is to race walk. It’s a natural tendency for people to laugh at the unfamiliar. When people try it, they become familiar and gain respect for it. Having said that, I don’t focus much energy on trying to convince people; I do it because I love it.

What do you think are the biggest fitness/health benefits of race walking? Do you think it’s a safe option for people who are very overweight?

Knowing race walking technique is very useful as 90% to 95% of the body’s muscles are used in every workout. It’s a very ‘even’ and safe workout which doesn’t strain any single part of your body excessively, and results in less injuries.

How would you like to see race walking develop in the next 20 years?

I would love to see a club structure with regular race walking in every major city in the U.S.
I strongly believe that this interest needs to be built from the ground up, and I’m working with a not-for-profit, North American Race walking Institute (NARI) to translate this vision into reality. We’re starting off with introducing race walking to elementary school students (with a plan to extend to middle and high schools later), and have printed books with key information. The great thing is that kids in low-income areas don’t need much money or special equipment to start race walking, and the big bonus is if they do well, they could go to college for free!

What would you say to encourage someone interested in race walking?

Just get out and walk. Build up gradually to a few miles a day a few days a week. Pick up valuable free advice at walkinghealthy.com and racewalk.com. Once you feel ready to take the next step, reach out to get proper training.

It’s one of the few sports where you could be walking in a local race as an amateur, and you could be walking right alongside an Olympian. And typically Olympic athletes are very encouraging and supportive of up and coming walkers.

There are very few Olympic sports that are this accessible. The great thing about walking is that you can start training when you’re really young, and you don’t need much money to get started. It’s also not a very popular sport in the U.S., so if you have strong talent and combine that with dedication and plenty of hard work, you have a very good shot of being able to try out for the Olympic team.

And above all, enjoy it. Race walking is a sport for life–it doesn’t have to be about competing with other people, it’s about competing with yourself.

And, finally, do runners laugh at you?

They laugh when they’re in front of you, but as the race progresses, they don’t laugh when they’re looking at your butt!