Written by: Leda McDaniel
Have you ever been to a shoe store and done a “Free” running gait analysis to check out your running mechanics before buying new running shoes?
If the answer is YES...
…you may have come away with sound-bites of information like, “you are a “pronator” or that “you need stability shoes to best avoid injury.” These well-meaning tips may ultimately guide your choice of shoe and, while well-intentioned, most gait analyses conducted at running shoe stores are much too brief to really discern significant corrections to form or effective recommendations for training variables, including shoe choice.
In Episode #19 of the More Than Miles Podcast, Physical Therapists Dr. Kate Mihevc Edwards and Dr. Kacy Seynders, who have literally spent years doing running gait analyses, break down key components of a thorough running gait analysis. They discuss why it is important to have someone trained and experienced look at your running gait and some common deviations and corrections that they have seen in running gait patterns over many repetitions of practice. These points of wisdom can be described in 3 key areas:
3 Keys to Effective Running Gait Analysis:
1. Context Matters
2. Experience Matters
3. Cueing Matters
One of the downfalls of getting a running gait analysis in a shoe store is that you are unlikely to meet a physical therapist, or someone trained in biomechanics to help you! Thus, the person watching you run probably does not have any context for what they are observing or a depth of experience on which to base the recommendations that may follow. In the Podcast episode mentioned above, Dr. Kate and Dr. Kacy explain the importance of critically analyzing some one’s gait given contextual factors such as injury history, competitive event (e.g., 5K runner vs. marathon runner vs. triathlete), training volume, and running goals. Without some of these factors, the recommendations that can be made about running gait may be less helpful and could even be detrimental because they are not considering the person’s comprehensive needs as an athlete. For example, knowing that a runner is coming back from a foot injury could lead the observer to focus more on that foot and could explain why the runner has learned a maladaptive gait pattern such as spending less “stance time” on that foot, even when pain has resolved!
The importance of experience cannot be overstated. Just like you would want to take your brand-new Audi S5 Cabriolet to an Audi dealership or foreign car specialist for the best chance for quality repairs, you absolutely want to seek out someone with experience to analyze your running gait! Human biomechanics is certainly complex and thinking that a movement pattern such as running gait can be mastered in a quick employee workshop at a running shoe store just is not realistic. Dr. Kate and Dr. Kacy have spent countless hours looking at and studying running gait and they continually are working on ways to improve their skills and recommendations that follow.
What can you expect when talking to someone well-versed in running gait analysis? As Dr. Kate and Dr. Kacy will tell you, there is no such thing as a “perfect” running gait. But there are “norms” that one could expect most people to fall within leading to a running pattern that is most efficient and will dissipate force appropriately to keep risk of injury low. An example of this may be the foot and ankle working as a “shock absorber” when your foot hits the ground and being flexible enough to roll into pronation (see, pronation is not automatically bad!) while also “storing energy” through the Achilles’ tendon and calf complex to be used in propelling you forward as you push off that foot. Some common “faults” that may be seen in these areas are if someone is not pronating with the right timing or an individual is lacking dorsiflexion motion to adequately move through the “energy storage” phase at the Achilles’ tendon/calf complex. See how complex this can get!
As Dr. Kate emphasizes in the podcast, it is crucial to take a full body approach to analyzing gait. Even though some people may think running is just a lower body activity, what is happening with head and neck carrying positions, arm swing, breathing, and trunk position can all influence factors of how a person’s foot is hitting the ground or what types of forces are felt at the person’s knee. For example, if an individual is travelling with too much “vertical displacement,” (i.e., bouncing up and down too much), they could be leaking power in these up and down motions and reducing their efficiency in creating horizontal forces to power their running going forward. Or, if a person has a pelvis position that is tipped too far forward this could change the length of their hamstring and glute muscles and affect their ability to produce force!
In addition to taking a “holistic” view of your running gait, part of what you get when seeking out expert advice is a look at your running gait from many different angles (e.g., side, front, back) and at strategic points in your run distance. For example, Dr. Kacy describes that she may tell a runner to come in after running 10 miles so that she can evaluate their form in a fatigued state if they are having pain at the end of their training runs.
Other areas to look at will likely include knee joint angles, hip and trunk control, and even torsional motions at the shin! One example of a common “fault” or pattern of weakness is exaggerated hip drop when a person is taking load on their foot that hits the ground and this may indicate weakness in “glute” muscles that help to stabilize the pelvis. They even get so detailed as to look at what is happening at the big toe during the “push off” phase of gait and why this is so important for what happens up the “body chain” and could trigger injuries at the knee or hip if there is not enough motion here! As you can see, looking at gait with all of these various factors really takes a trained eye!
As Dr. Kate says in the podcast episode, simple cues can make running more “effortless,” and fun! Who wouldn’t want that? The podcast also includes some tips on cueing for common form adjustments in running including changing cadence (if appropriate). For example, if you are trying to run at a certain cadence, there are phone apps that may be useful such as metronome apps (Kacy recommends “Pro Metronome”), or even ways to make playlists with songs that have their beats set at a specified cadence.
If coming back from injury, it could be helpful to seek out a physical therapist to look at your running gait and provide exercises matched to what they see or cues to change certain aspects of your running gait. These exercises in addition to some hands on or verbal cueing from a physical therapist could address patterns of muscle weakness or tightness that have been observed or change the firing patterns of certain muscle groups that impact running gait.
For more on running gait analysis including a discussion of optimal cadence (steps per minute), common faults that may lead to increased injury risk, and other pro tips check out the full podcast episode below: