Is Gait Analysis Worth It?
There is a lot written about the best way to run. I’m talking about running gait, proper form, Forefoot Vs Rearfoot, Vs. Midfoot. The question of how best to run pops up all the time. You hear it on the runs, in social media, coffee shops, and running stores. Gurus and pseudo experts flout their opinions. It’s a popular subject fueled by the sense that you are missing out on the best way to run that will keep you free from injury and help you reach your next PR. It’s a perennial subject, loaded with bunk science and baloney.
Running Is In Our DNA
Have you ever noticed how your running gait changes when you speed up or slow down? Your running gait, or form changes in relation to your speed. Run flat out and you will likely be on your toes forefoot striking. Run slow for a long time and you relax into being a heel striker. From this we can deduce that your gait should change with your pace. Yet gait analysis does not take this into account. In fact, most gait analysis is done in the absence of any biomechanical knowledge, or scientific foundation. In other words, gait analysis is loaded with the opinions of the uninformed.
Your running gait was written into your DNA a long time ago. The runners with the best gait escaped predation and were successful hunters. Runners with poor gait got eaten or starved. Needless to say, they are not your ancestors, their kind did not make it into the future. Nature had a way of calculating how much to contract a specific group of muscles, just the right amount, and in just the right sequence, at just the right time. That calculation, changes constantly depending on what your goals are. Running flat out in a burst of acceleration intended to escape a predator requires a different running gait than traveling to distant hunting grounds. Old people run differently than young people. Delicate vs. robust physique, high mileage compared to low mileage runners; all have there own special gait requirements.
We are not all built to the same specifications. Your running gait is unique to your body type, it’s like a fingerprint. People can recognize you by your running gait. In order to understand just how different we are from one another, let’s take a look at some examples of just two different bones involved in your running gait:
The first photo is a side view of the pelvis and shows where the hip socket is located. Some hips are located to the rear or posterior of the body and some are oriented to the front, or anterior. Some hips are better suited for forefoot leg swing, meaning you are best suited to heel strike. Some hips are better suited for the leg to swing backward and strike on the mid or forefoot. This also photo also explains why some people can easily bend over and touch their toes and some people can only bend with their fingertips to the knees. Some people are said to have “Tight Muscles” when they are merely built differently.
The next photo shows how some people are built with short or long femur heads, high angle, or shallow angle. These shapes make a difference in how your hip joint moves and how bow legged or knock kneed’ you are.
Some people have factory defects in their femur heads, causing a foot or knee to turn in or out at odd angles. These variations cannot be retrained. Retraining the gait of this runner would result in energy spent overworking muscles, likely resulting in injury. Think about Geoffrey Mutai who set the world record in the 2011 Marathon at 2:03:02 with a crooked gait. Priscah Jeptoo, who has a right leg that whips like an eggbeater, yet managed to win the New York, Paris, Turin and London marathons among several other important races as well as the olympic silver medal. And what about Ussain Bolt, arguably the fastest sprinter in history, has a grossly uneven stride, 1/2 inch short leg and crooked spine.
If they would have retrained the gait of these three extraordinary runners, they may never have made it to the starting line. They adapted. That program, the one that was developed all those millennia ago, knew exactly how to adapt to their unique asymmetry and optimize their performance. I have good news for you. You have that same program, and you too can adapt. You don’t need to do anything special to optimize your gait. Just Run.
But Gait Analysis Helped Me Run Better!
So what about the runner who changes their gait and feels better? It feels different when you change the way you run. It feels interesting, maybe even better. It may feel better if you are injured to change your gait to avoid certain muscles in the mechanical movement sequence. When focusing on gait or running form for the first time it feels interesting. You may never have paid any attention to your gait and how it feels, so gait coaching is an interesting sensation. The question is, does it help? Some people would say yes, then change their gait, then revert to their default gait when they get tired. Then if they are injured believe it is a result of faulty gait.
There is an energy cost to changing your gait. You can be taught to prance on your mid-foot and avoid knee pain. But, there is an energy cost to lifting your knee to get that gait. That energy cost can be measured with a wearable blood oxygen saturation and pulse measurement device or “oximeter,” which gives you an approximation of what we call “Running Economy." Running economy is a measurement of how much energy is used to propel you across a certain distance at a certain velocity.
Two Ways To Improve Running Economy
Two running economy strategies that have received recent widespread attention are strength training and altitude training. Strength training allows the muscles to utilize more elastic energy and reduce the amount of energy wasted in braking forces. Given enough time, runners naturally gravitate toward a running style that maximizes economy. Conclusion: Run more miles.
“The best way to improve your running gait and more importantly, running economy, is run more miles.”
The next best way to improve your gait is to get stronger. You can get stronger by running more. But your running gait characteristics can degrade at the end of a race, if you have weak muscles. You can observe weakness in tired runners nearing the end of a hard race. Stand at a finish line and observe struggling runners, this will give you an appreciation of how different their running gait looks when they are tired. Cheer for that runner and their renewed, optimal running gait blooms into a sprint to the finish line!
When choosing strength exercises for runners they should mimic running biomechanics. Walking lunges, lunge matrix, gluteal strength, hip strength and core strength are appropriate. The muscles that make you uniquely human and give you the stability to stand upright are the gluteals. Without them you wouldn’t be upright. Look at monkeys glutes and you’ll see what I mean. Strong gluteal muscles are the key to avoiding injury. Your body moves in three distinct directions when you run and your exercises should strengthen you in all three of these planes of motion. There are runners exercise videos on my YouTube channel that have a proven track record for rehabilitation and injury prevention. Just pick two or three of them and do them everyday. Do them after you run because they can leave you tired and affect your performance.
Is Retraining Your Running Gait Ever The Right Thing To Do?
There are situations when a gait change is appropriate. If you are injured and must continue running then there is a way to limit the amount of “Ground reaction force.” Sore joints and injuries generally don’t mix well with high impact. The rate that you apply the load to your joints is called “Impact load rate.” If you run fast, the rate of loading applied to your joints is much higher than when you run slow. Slowing down is a type of gait change. Another way to reduce load rate is to use a higher “Cadence.” Cadence is merely the number of steps per minute. Generally,170-180 strides per minute will help reduce impact load rate. If you’re a tall or long-legged runner you could run with a cadence closer to 170 steps per minute. If you’re a short legged runner you should aim for a cadence closer to 180 strides per minute. Very fast runners are closer to 190 steps per minute.
You are uniquely you, always be you. You will be most admired when you are truly you. Let me see that running gait that is truly yours!
Dr. Steve Smith