Gait, Part 2

By April 30, 2015 Exercise

If you haven’t read part 1, get to it here.

A Quick Primer on Running Right

The notion of barefoot running to improve your form and gait is fine and good, but what if you’ve trained your body to bend forward too much, can’t get the image of a world-class marathoner-type stride out of your head, or have learned other bad running habits such as landing on your heels. What then? So here are some additional recommendations that can help you get out of the rut.

1. Avoid trying to emulate the “perfect” gait

You can’t fool Mother Nature, so don’t mess with gait. Trying to run with some “perfect” running form is a quick way to get hurt. It’s been tried over and over, without long-term success. In fact, it was a common history I heard from runners coming to my clinic with an injury. The sad story was a common one—many of the comments went something like this:

  • I started running strides on the track to improve my form…
  • I was watching the New York City Marathon on TV and couldn’t help notice the running style of the leader and thought I should run the same way…
  • I began training with my friends who were running 400-meter sprints…
  • I read an article on form in the running magazine…

All these statements ended with “…soon afterward I started feeling this pain…”

What’s particularly typical is that a coach or runner himself will attempt to break down the gait into separate components—arms should be horizontal, knees should come up high, thigh horizontal, heels should almost hit your butt, and so on. When all these aspects are performed “correctly” you supposedly have the perfect gait and can move at a faster running pace. But in reality, most runners revert back to their old habits, physically unable to make these dramatic changes. And what often happen next is a muscle twinge here, a joint ache there, and soon a run-stopping injury. That’s because the runner is often starting with an already improper gait, especially if he or she is a heel-striker wearing the wrong, over-supported shoes. The fact is that there are actually dozens of interrelated components regarding gait—and even if you make them picture-perfect, it doesn’t mean your body works better that way. Additionally, consciously making a lot of gait changes can raise your heart rate significantly—a sign of increased stress. And, if you only change some of the individual pieces of your gait, you just end up with another form of improper gait that can cause physical stress elsewhere in your body.

2. Don’t Lean Forward

It seems obvious. If you lean forward you’ll fall forward and propel your body in the direction it’s going, so it must be a good way to run. It’s not. The problem with leaning forward is that most people do it by bending at the waist; that’s unnatural. Bending forward forces your lower and upper spine to extend back more, and in fact, the whole body to adapt to a potentially worsening posture. The result will be added stress on your muscles, tendons, joints, ligaments, and bones anywhere in the body.

Instead of bending at your waist, which flexes the pelvis and triggers a whole serious of abnormal changes in posture leading to a more irregular gait, think about the whole pelvis being slightly more forward instead of tilting forward. Properly done, this will make you run in a more upright posture. Think about being taller when you run, which technically you are when your posture is right. As the spine is straighter (it has normal curves) you will also want to make sure your head is in a natural position too. Do this with your eyes and your head will follow: look slightly below the horizon—not gazing straight ahead, not looking up, and not with your head looking down at the ground.

By unnaturally bending or tilting forward you could cause the powerful gluteus maximus muscles in the area of your butt to gradually lose power because they contract much less (which causes the quadriceps on the front of the thigh and possibly the psoas muscles in the front of the pelvis) to tighten too much. And, both the lumbar (low back) and cervical (neck) spine can extend too much, producing an exaggerated curve along with extensor muscle tightness in the back of the neck and low back. This could also cause weakness in the neck flexor muscles, making the head less stable, which can further worsen your form. All this makes the body use more energy to accomplish the same task of moving forward.

When running, think about a forward pelvis and you’ll feel your quadriceps contract as you hit the ground with your foot. If you do this correctly, you’ll feel your butt tighten, and even produce slight muscle soreness between workouts if you have chronic gluteus maximus weakness. Doing this will also allow your abdominal muscles to contract more, and become firm, further helping you run with a better upright posture.

All this may be difficult if not impossible to do if you wear over-supported or thick-soled running shoes because you’ll land on your heel, which forces your pelvis back instead of forward. By wearing proper shoes and landing mid- or forefoot, your gait is more likely to be optimal.

Even better is this idea: Instead of trying to lean forward, focus on the “hot coal” technique mentioned earlier. By getting your foot off the ground quicker (which is a process of bending and lifting the knee) you’ll encourage the foot and ankle “spring forward” mechanism, which will propel you most efficiently.

3. Pushing Off

If you follow the actions noted above, pushing off from the ground with your foot is not something you need to consciously do with each step. Your brain will take care of that action (along with the hundreds of others your body undergoes during running). Pushing off should be natural and occur without you doing anything if your gait is right. As noted above, the body has an incredible spring mechanism, an important job of the tendons attaching to foot muscles that make up the arches of the feet, and especially the Achilles tendon supported by the calf muscles. As you hit the ground you recycle that pounding energy to spring forward. In other words, you will be naturally using the force in your favor for a better gait. If you have to force your push-off, you’re probably doing something wrong, such as wearing the wrong shoes. In that case, the pounding becomes a negative effect and ultimately can contribute to an injury.

4. Fast leg turnover

A fast leg turnover is fine, but can you mimic a world-class runner stride for stride? For most, the answer is no. Just like you can’t shorten your stride too much to get a faster turnover. Too long or too short a stride is unnatural and stressful; but finding your most relaxed gait will produce the lowest heart rate, all while maintaining the same pace. (Or, a faster pace with the same heart rate.)

You can run within the natural boundaries of your own biomechanics and still increase leg turnover by incorporating downhill runs into your training. By running down a slight or moderate grade (not too steep) you can maintain the same heart rate and run at a much faster pace and without overstriding, thereby having a faster turnover. This is a great workout for those who compete, and performing it once or twice a week (not back-to-back days) is not excessive for most runners. You can do this with several downhill repeats if you have a long grade of a half mile or more (with an easy jog up the hill to start your downhill run again), or just run a hilly course with adequate downhills.

5. Cadence

Humans move in an incredibly similar fashion regarding cadence or tempo. It may be hard to believe, but most of us all run about 180 steps per minute. Anyone who is healthy normally walks at a basic pace of about 120 steps per minute. Even during our daily activity has been shown to have a “pace” of 120 steps or moves per minute. (The exception is walking or running on a treadmill, which poses a particular stress due to its unnatural circumstance—the brain senses the body movement but the body remains in one place. In this case there’s a wider variation in tempo.)

These numbers—180 and 120—are approximate and are typical. Virtually all runners have a range of tempo between about 150 and 190 steps a minute whether jogging, running a marathon, or sprinting. This allows one’s brain some leeway to adjust one’s pace and body mechanics as necessary. Muscle imbalance, fatigue, caffeine, time of day, the weather and other factors can affect one’s running efficiency for a given workout, and the brain will sense these factors and make appropriate changes such as slightly slowing our tempo, or speeding it up.

It’s more than the brain, the rest of our head is important too, not only influencing tempo but gait. The eyes (a part of the brain) play a role, as does the inner ear, which contains a tiny “otolith” on each side. These contribute to collecting information about body movement and balance. In addition, various muscles around the neck and those of the jaw joint (which connect directly to the brain as opposed to all other muscles which first connect to the spinal cord) continually send messages to the brain about body movement, and help the eyes and ears do their work. All this feedback, combined with the sensory input coming from the feet, spine, pelvis and elsewhere, helps the brain better adapt to changes during a run. Most of these adjustments are subtle and barely noticeable. The result is the most efficient run possible. In order to do this, the brain may decide 176 is a good tempo, at least for the first 20 or so minutes, then it may change to 182, and so on.

6. Got Rhythm?

It so happens that humans have a rhythmic brain, and the walking tempo of 120, and 180 for running, are examples of this pattern. Ask anyone to tap out a rhythm with his or her fingers and the tempo will usually be around 120 beats a minute. Even listening to music at this tempo is preferable. Scientists have evaluated over 74,000 pieces of modern music between 1960 and 1990, and found that the average rhythm was around 120 beats per minute.

It’s no wonder music can help one’s running, like all other sports. Music can promote the activity of the cerebellum, that “little brain” at the base of one’s brain, which controls tempo and rhythm. People who can’t maintain a smooth gait while running may benefit from listening to music—not in the background and not necessarily while running, but focused listening as music as therapy any time of day even if it’s only for a few minutes; it helps the brain regulate the rhythm of the gait.

Another way to help your gait is by using a metronome. A small hand-help digital metronome, available in most music stores or online websites, is easy to carry and adjust throughout your workout. This simple therapy can help you learn to run more smoothly by following the beats of the metronome adjusted to your pace. It’s best to do this on an easy running surface such as a paved road or track rather than a rough trail. Start with a proper warm up, adjusting the metronome to your slower pace—the metronome should beep in conjunction with each footstep. As you increase your speed, adjust the metronome again. With each new tempo, make sure your feet are hitting the ground in step with the metronome’s beat. It may seem difficult at first to maintain the right rhythm—syncing the brain’s coordination of beats with your feet hitting the ground. You may find your mind drifting away at times, causing a briefly loss of beat-step coordination. But as your cerebellum gets the idea, as the therapy succeeds, your gait will become smoother and the run will feel easier and more relaxed. For some people, just a few training sessions with a metronome can work wonders. Others may require a few weeks.

10 Comments

  • Eric Tobias says:

    I have no trouble hitting 180-184spm when doing speed work. But I generally can only hit between 156-170 during my easy runs. My contact time generally hits 310-350ms for all runs. I keep hearing contact time is directly related to speed. So I am stuck in a rut.

    Eric

  • Brian S Carpenter says:

    Greetings,
    I was very interested in the cadence portion of the article. I am getting back into running and have decided to commit to the MAF method. My first run was a 5.5 miler this past weekend. I had set the cadence on my watch to 180 but due to the slow nature of the run in order to stay under my MAF max HR I actually ended up at an average of 147 for the run. Is this normal? Each time I tried to go with a quicker cadence my HR would rise and I would have to slow down. I am okay with that as I will expect it to improve and my HR allows the pace to increase with time but wanted to know if that is a normal byproduct of the much slower pace? Thank you in advance for your response!

  • Marco says:

    You’re absolutely right about that.

    From what I know, my running form is not bad. I’m just trying to improve my running economy but I don’t want to risk any injury by doing something wrong. During the past week I tried the “hot coal” technique during 3 workouts and every time I felt a small pain somewhere in my body (foot, calf muscle,…). Usually I don’t have any pain when I run (thanks to the MAF method and your help for choosing proper running shoes).

    It is with this perspective that I said I may want to rely on my brain and not trying to change anything a few weeks before Paris marathon. Maybe I should find someone to assess my running form and to help me with that? What do you think? I guess it should be safer. Anything you recommend?

    Thanks in advance for your help, much useful as always 🙂

    • Marco:

      Welcome.

      The “hot coals” cue is a pretty good one, and by itself can take you very, very far in fixing your form. That said, the process of fixing your form means that your body loses its fine tuning, resulting in temporary reductions in raw performance (much like a race car that is taken to the garage to swap out parts). For this reason, it’s better to make any gait changes in your off season—you want to make sure your body is comfortable in its current state when running a marathon.

      Small pains are adaptive—they can mean, for example, that a particular muscle is pulling more than usual, due to a different (but presumably better) alignment. The problem starts when a pain causes you to stop “enthusiastically putting your weight on a limb” (as I like to say). Where are you located? I know a lot of good coaches that could help you. If you want, you can also e-mail me in the “contact” section—that way you don’t have to share your location to the world.

  • Marco says:

    I’m trying to use the hot coals technique to improve my gait. As soon as I feel one foot touching the ground I lift it up as quickly as possible. In order to do so I find myself lifting my knees a little bit more than usual. I also feel I hit the ground more front-foot than mid-foot when doing that.

    However when I slow my pace (during warm-up or cool-down) I’m not able to do it properly since I can’t lift my feet quickly in slow motion. I guess this is normal.

    Are these feelings right? I’d like to know if I do the exercise properly.

    • Marco:

      Absolutely. The warm-up and cool-down are just that. You don’t need to worry about your form—worry about warming up the range of motion you need to produce the right form once you’re running.

      • Marco says:

        Thanks for the reply. It makes sense.

        Tonight I still ran another workout using this technique. However my average pace is almost 10 seconds per km slower. Actually, I find this logical since I do more muscular effort as I consciously alter my natural gait by lifting my knees a bit more. After all shouldn’t I trust my brain to find the best economical gait and running form?

        Overall I think my natural running form is not bad. I run straight, land on my middle or front-foot all the time, I feel comfortable and balanced, and my cadence is usually around 176. So maybe I shouldn’t worry about it and keep it that way?

        • Marco:

          Let me put that in perspective: it’s a bad idea to trust everyone’s brain to find the best way to lift a heavy object. Some people—those with good range of motion and motor patterning, will make the right choice and bend from the knees, but others will bend at the waist. This is either because the brain senses there is a restriction and decides for another avenue of movement, or the brain just doesn’t know that there is a particular motor pattern that helps a particular task. Imagine, for example, if instead of teaching someone to tuck and roll for dropping from a high place, we “trust everyone’s brain to find the best way.”

          Don’t get me wrong here—learning a new skill will reduce your economy temporarily. The brain has to learn the different parts of the skill, and then put them all together, and then automate them, and then make the automation more and more robust. But let’s say that a high-schooler has been in love with throwing javelins all his life, and now he wants to try out for the decathlon. The coach might realize that his form is quite bad, meaning that he won’t be able to develop world-class power with that form. What’s the solution? Slow the person down, develop the correct form, and then build strength and power.

          Hope this helps.

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