Why Every Runner is Different, and How You Can Go Faster, Be More Efficient, and Lessen the Risk of Injury
The term gait has been thrown around like an old pair of running shoes. What is precisely meant by the term gait? It is typically defined as moving posture—in running, it’s the whole body’s forward progress, including the foot strike and pelvic position, to arm swing, head and knee movement. It’s not unusual for coaches, kinesiologists and other biomechanics experts, and elite runners to dissect each component of one’s gait. From this assessment, each element of the gait that’s viewed as “flawed” is “corrected”—the runner is told to lift the knee to this position, swing the arms that way, or hold the elbows this way.
Yet nothing is more natural than the biomechanics of human running. Or should be. With every step a runner takes, the limbs, trunk, head and spine participate in various combinations of movement, ranging from flexion, extension, and rotation, to abduction and adduction, along with the feet, which pronate, supinate, invert and evert. Only by understanding the normal range of motion can one detect “abnormal” movements so as to help assess an injured athlete or observe for the potential of future injury.
This is what I like doing as coach, trainer, and also in private practice—applying what I learned about biomechanics as a student, and using that knowledge to help patients correct their painful injuries and hidden imbalances. But before I became adept at treating common athletic injuries, I had to learn the biggest lesson yet: understanding the details of each of the body’s movements—some are so subtle that most runners don’t even notice them—had to be put aside, almost forgotten. Instead, I had to look at the big picture. In other words, when it comes to gait, the whole person moves better than the sum of each of his or her parts. This is what makes the running gait uniquely individual.
More importantly, there’s no ideal running form. While all humans have the same basic running patters—just like other animals—your gait is yours alone. In fact, it’s easy to recognize your running partner from a distance, even before the face comes into focus, because you know his or her unique running fingerprint.
Even looking at the best athletes in professional sports, there’s one common feature—everyone’s movements are slightly different. Each golfer follows the basic swing, while at the same time each has a swing all his own; the same for every pole-vaulter, baseball pitcher, tennis player, or marathoner.
That is, unless something interferes with movement. When something causes the gait to go astray, two things happen. First, there is the risk of getting injured because it meant something went wrong, and it will be reflected in running form in a subtle—or sometimes more obvious—way. There might be irregular movement in the hip joint causing the pelvis to tilt more to one side than the other, more flexion of one knee than the other stressing the hamstring muscles, too much rotation of the leg causing the foot to flair outward excessively, and erratic arm movements. The most common reason for this is muscle imbalance, and it forces the body to compensate by contracting certain muscles to keep the imbalance from worsening.
The second problem is that the body’s energy is being used inefficiently. It will raise the heart rate more than usual, making one fatigue quicker, and resulting in a slower pace. There are several common abnormalities that could interfere with the brain’s ability to let the body run free and efficiently.
Physical interference is most often the result of bad shoes or muscle imbalance, sometimes both. Stretching can disturb the gait too—by making a muscle longer with a loss of power. By stretching muscles before running, it’s very possible to cause muscle imbalance.
Mental-emotional interference is most typically the result of misinformation, usually from bad advice. The images seen on TV, of lead runners in the marathon traveling at sub-5-minute paces, remain in the brains of millions of people who jog along at a 10-minute pace in the same race. We all want to run that way, but we can’t. And, we should not pretend either.
Another mental-emotional factor is a bad habit. It’s easy in our society to develop bad postural habits. A lot of energy is devoted to some movements, like running or lifting weights, but neglect other activities like healthy posture. The result is that we slump at our desks, stand with poor posture and even walk with a bad gait—all because somewhere along the way we allowed our bodies to get lazy. For many, these bad habits carry over to running.
Key Differences Between Running and Walking
Walking is associated with first striking the heel, whereas a running gait involves landing farther forward on the foot—a mid foot strike in most cases with more forefoot landing as running speed increases.
Making contact with the ground imparts impact forces—the foot literally collides with the earth on each step. While impact is often seen as a negative aspect of running, equating to trauma and injury, a proper gait is potentially associated with better bone density and improved muscle and tendon function, better circulation and other healthy benefits associated with exercise. With proper gait, colliding with the ground is well compensated for—humans have evolved an effective gait mechanism.
Impact forces during walking are relatively minor. But heel-striking while running can be a significant loss of energy, a common example of an improper gait producing stress from impact. The overall mechanics of the foot, ankle and leg, and many body areas above, are stressed with abnormal heel striking compared to the runner who lands farther forward. Mid- or forefoot running is associated with a more optimal gait that’s usually not impact impaired. Let’s consider these two gaits.
A key difference between walking and proper (mid- and forefoot) running is how the foot muscles work, and, in particular, the energy used for propulsion. The walking body acts more like an inverted pendulum, swinging along step-by-step, literally vaulting over stiff legs with locked knees. Muscles use the body’s metabolic energy created by conversion of carbohydrates and fat.
Things are quite different with running. This action is sometimes referred to as an “impulsive” and “springy” gait, rebounding along on compliant legs and unlocked knees. Instead of using all the body’s energy, the leg and foot have a built-in “return energy” system for a significant amount of energy. This relies on the Achilles and other tendons to recycle impact energy. (Don’t confuse this with claims made that some running shoes have a “return energy” system, they don’t—it’s simply marketing hype.)
In running, the body has an effective muscle work-minimizing strategy—many of the foot muscles don’t technically push you off the ground like during walking. Instead, the muscles provide an isometric-type tension to stabilize the tendons and help in the function of the unique mechanism that takes impact energy, sometimes referred to as “elastic energy” associated with gravity and impact, and uses it for propelling the body forward. In particular, the large springy Achilles tendon on the back of the heel that runs up the leg and attaches into the large calf muscles (the gastrocnemius and soleus) plays a key role in recycling energy for propulsion. This tendon must function with sufficient tension to help in the return energy process, and the muscles it attaches to, also important postural supports, require a certain level of tautness, even at rest. (Trying to “loosen” these muscles and tendons through stretching, aggressive massage or other therapy may be counter-productive, impairing the natural springy gait. Excessive tightness of the Achilles certainly can induce poor function as well—think balance.)
Those with shorter, more compact Achilles tendons, unlike taller runners who also have longer heel bones attached to the Achilles, generally have a more efficient spring mechanism—one reason why shorter runners typically can run faster, especially in sprinting, although there are exceptions. Carl Lewis and Usain Bolt, past and present Olympic champions, respectively, are taller than average. Bolt’s height advantage worked against him in the start, but then he would later cover more ground using fewer strides than his competitors.
Here’s how the body’s natural gait uses recycled energy for propulsion. As a runner’s foot hits the ground, impact energy is stored in the muscles and tendons, and 95 percent of this energy is then used to spring the body forward like a pogo stick. This mechanism provides about 50 percent of the leg and foot energy for propulsion (the other 50 percent comes from muscle contraction). If this process isn’t working well, such as if you land on your heels, are wearing bad shoes, or have muscle imbalance, the impact energy is dissipated or lost, and you must make up for the problem by contracting more muscles for propulsion which requires the use of more energy. Not only is this mechanically inefficient but it will slow you down, due to the higher cost of energy. This can be further compounded if you burn less fat for energy, thereby relying more on sugar that’s associated with the more rapid onset of fatigue. And, the impact energy that’s not recycled often places a strain on muscles and tendons (and ultimately, ligaments and bones), and can contribute to an injury.
In addition, movements above the ankle, especially in the knees, hips and low back can help—or hurt—the natural “spring-ahead” mechanism. Too much motion in these joints can reduce the body’s ability to recycle impact energy. By running more upright—you should be running tall—rather than adopting a lazy, slumped-over position, you’ll minimize knee, hip and low back movements, and thus helping to utilize the foot’s spring mechanism. This involves using muscles similar to when you have to stand up straight—they include the abdominals, gluteus maximus, and even the neck flexors that prevent the head from tilting back.
Other movements are different between walking and running. Most notably in the knee, which is locked during a walking gait but not while running. The slightly flexed knee is more active during running, and requires much more effort by muscles to support the joint while the foot is on the ground. This is a key reason why many runners with improper gait have knee injuries.
Those who run slowly often wonder if it’s better to sometimes just walk fast as the pace can be the same. This is especially true on hills. Deciding on which option is best is the job of the brain that will naturally tend to make the right decision about making the transition from walking to running.
The energy cost of walking and running not only varies with speed, but type of ground surface and other environmental factors such as temperature, humidity and wind. But when the gait is irregular, both walking and running share a common feature: both movements will cost more in energy. The worse or more inefficient the gait, the greater will be the energy expenditure.
What is the Best Running Gait?
Over the years, I was often asked about the best way to run. Faster leg turnover? Lean forward with the body? Keep your arms by your side? Push off with your feet? I wish there was a simple answer. But there’s not. What is best to tell a runner, however, is the notion that if your feet hit the ground properly, the rest of the body tends to follow, resulting in your natural gait. While this is the most important place to start improving your gait—and if there’s a problem here’s the one to fix first. But this is easier done than said. Most running shoes interfere with the feet doing their job, which could cause the whole body to have a poor gait, inducing stress into muscles, bones and joints. By wearing the wrong shoes you’ll never find your natural effective gait.
A specific problem that’s most common is that many running shoes cause you to land on your heel instead of further forward on your foot. This is because they are built with large, over-supported heels and are marketed as providing as a “smoother, more cushioned ride.” But over time, the repetitive action of landing on the heel causes foot dysfunction as well the potential for ankle, knee, and hip injury. Now your body’s foundation is cracking at the most vulnerable areas.
The arches in your feet, supported by muscles, and many tendons, especially the large Achilles, work in such a way that when unimpeded, their built-in spring-like action makes running a perfectly natural activity. Not only can your foot take the pounding force with each step without damage, but it takes that energy—from the gravitation force—and recycles it back to the foot to spring forward instead of falling back. But by wearing shoes with built-up heels, you are virtually falling backwards with each step.
Try running barefoot even for a few yards to feel the difference. You can’t land on your heel. Being barefoot will change all that. It will allow you to run free, natural and efficient. Generally, by running barefoot, you’ll tend not to slump. It will be easier to keep an upright posture. This is because you’ll land on your mid-to forefoot, not your heel. And with each step your foot will spring your body up and forward.
This natural gait will help you sense your feet springing off the ground, almost as if they have more energy. In fact, they do. That’s the energy return that occurs naturally in a healthy stride. Focus on the feet springing off the ground. When you feel it, your body will actually be moving more quickly. If you’re wearing a heart monitor, you’ll see that your pace can be faster without a rise in heart rate. (I have witnessed on many occasions, a difference ranging between 10 or 12 beats—with higher rates associated with an improper running gait.)
Need more help? Think of running on hot coals—if you were going to do that, your feet need to stay off the red-hot coals as much as possible. So from the instant each foot touches the ground, quickly pick it up. I’ve used this “hot coal technique” to help runners be more efficient with their gait. The longer your foot stays on the ground, the more energy you waste, the more vulnerable you are to injury, and the less likely you will use that energy for better running. Instead, think about your feet coming off the ground after each step. All while you’re relaxed. Look at photos of the great runners; they are actually airborne much of the time because they spend much less time with each foot on the ground.
In the unlikely event that your body is being particularly stubborn and you can’t relate to what I’ve just explained, it could be that your feet are so used to working improperly that they need more time to learn natural movements. They may require additional re-training, or rehabilitation. If this is the case, keep forging ahead with barefoot activity, slowly increasing the time spent unshod. This process is particularly difficult and challenging for those who have already developed poor running habits or for those with a long history of wearing improper shoes.
Interference from muscle imbalance
Even if you’re doing all the right things—performing your brief barefoot jog, using the correct flat-sole shoes during the rest of your workout and throughout the day—muscle imbalance can interfere with a more efficient gait. One of the most common problems people develop in their feet is muscle imbalance. This can become a vicious cycle—you can’t walk or jog without your shoes because your muscle imbalance prevents proper support, but the shoes continue maintaining muscle imbalance.
But for some people with muscle imbalance, going without shoes often doesn’t feel right, or in some cases it’s painful. In both cases, the shoes have literally become a crutch—you’re addicted to the artificial support. It’s like being in a wheelchair all day—getting up after 10 hours will make you feel stiff and achy—being in the wheelchair for months will render you unable to even walk!
By gradually weaning yourself off over-supported shoes—and this means going barefoot whenever you can, or when it’s convenient—you can often fix the muscle imbalance in your feet by stimulating them in such a way as to enlist proper function of all the muscles, ligaments, tendons, and even the skin.
This can take time for some people. It might first be necessary to wear slightly thinner-soled shoes, and gradually work down to those that are half or more in thickness from your usually shoe. Only then, as your feet start to work and feel better will barefoot walking finally achieve that wonderful natural sensation that was originally hardwired into your body as a youth. Then, only after a couple of weeks of just walking more naturally, you will be able to jog barefoot.
In stubborn cases, or to speed the process, it may be necessary to find a healthcare professional who can determine which muscles are not functioning correctly, and fix them.
You don’t have to become a barefoot runner. For those who want to progress from walking to running, even professional athletes many choose to run barefoot for the whole workout. But for others, just spending time at home or work without shoes is the start of a great therapy. Then add a walk on the grass barefoot, even for 10 minutes a day. The more time barefoot, the more your feet will work better in a proper shoe. Jogging or running short distances barefoot to re-train your body’s natural gait is the quickest, most powerful, and most effective way to accomplish this task. It helps if you have a great location for barefoot running—a grassy park, a hard-sand beach, or a track.
By taking off your shoes and jogging or running barefoot—even for 50 or 100 yards, you’ll eliminate interference between your feet and ground, and quickly have better form. Among other things, this will improve your foot strike—from a heel striker to landing more forward—produce better pelvic movement and arm swing, and allow your head to better control eye and body coordination (a very complex but important part of running efficiency). But because of bad habits, some people need more than just taking off their shoes—this behavior is unfortunately well ingrained into the processes of the brain, nervous system and muscles. Perhaps this programming first began at an early age in gym class, at summer camp, or from watching a video, reading a running magazine, or from a well-meaning coach.
Once your gait is more natural, shoes will interfere much less. In fact, as your feet function better you’ll feel more sensitive to shoes that are not a perfect match—you’ll focus on finding the ones that fit just right on each foot, are flat and don’t disturb your normal foot mechanics. Once your feet are happy, you have the best chance of finding your ideal running form. In the process of finding the perfect shoe, you’ll become a “pain” for those salespeople in places like Footlocker. That’s okay.
Click here to go to “Gait, Part 2.”