Running has been around for ages, long before Pheidippides ran the 42km journey from Marathon, Greece to Athens to announce the defeat of the Persians. (Spoiler alert: Shortly after arriving and delivering the news, he died—but that’s a story for another day.) Despite centuries of pounding the pavement, though, runners today are still falling behind when it comes to nailing an efficient running gait.
Your gait is “how your body selects your movements,” says Christopher Lee, C.S.C.S., a certified run gait analyst, athletic performance director for the Tinman Elite and founder and owner of Kinesis Integrated. “It’s how you carry your arms, how your legs are spinning, and where they are striking the ground.” It’s your running technique.
Like a fingerprint, “each person has a unique reason why they run the way that they do, adds Doug Adams, C.S.C.S., a doctor of physical therapy, certified running gait analyst and founder of the Omega Project Physical Therapy. And guess what? There is no “perfect” running form, he says. Still, there are common factors that can hinder yours from being its best, resulting in a downgrade in performance and maybe even you sitting on the sidelines. In other words, just because you can get your body from point A to point B, doesn’t mean you are doing a good job of it.
To identify potential problem areas and to help take his Tinman Elite runners to the next level, Lee turns to 3D gait analysis. With this method, analysts look for where your strengths and weakness are, and try to identify how to build your gait around you versus telling you what to do to change your gait, he explains.
Here Lee points to three gait issues often illuminated during 3D gait analysis that may be keeping you from running longer, stronger, and, most importantly, injury-free.
You Have Too Much Ground Contact Time
If your feet are spending too much time on the ground, your hips are probably collapsing a little bit, says Lee. “If everything is working well—the hips are stable; the knee is staple; the ankle is strong; the muscles in between are firing well—you should be able to spring off of the ground,” he says. “When you lose that spring, you start sinking into the ground, and then instead of your muscles taking on that load or the impact of the ground, it starts going straight to your joints or your tendons.” That’s recipe for injury and, as research shows greater ground contact time is also going to affect your running efficiency.
To help reduce your ground contact time, Lee advocates for a combination of jumping and hopping drills, as jumping requires you to generate a lot of force and get up high (think: jumping up on a box to generate force and then progressing to absorbing force by jumping down from a box) while hopping, like when using a jump rope, is about getting off the ground quickly. “The combination of the two—being able to hop off the ground quickly and to jump high introduce a plyometric progression that is really important for creating a spring out of your body versus doing a little lunge and calf raise when you run, which can be really tiring.”
Before you master your air skills, though, Lee says you have to be strong on the ground, making sure your general strength in your feet, calves, hamstrings, quads and glutes are up to par so that they can handle the load of impact.
Your Mobility is Messed Up
While Lee admits, mobility isn’t exactly a gait issue, he says that it most certainly does impacts yours. “If you can’t move through your hip flexion or hip extension, you don’t have adequate control and internal and external rotation (adduction and abduction) of your hips, then you are not going to be able to get a good stride length or maintain control when you strike the ground when you toe off,” he says. “I call it the wonky leg. You’ll see a knee collapsing in when you strike the ground or when toeing off the foot is turned sideways. That comes from lack of mobility and stability.”
At the risk of over simplifying things, Lee says one of the best ways to combat mobility issues is making sure you have equal strength in opposing muscles group. For example, the quads and hamstrings. “If you have really strong quads, then you probably are going to have to balance out those hamstrings a bit. Otherwise, movement or mobility in one direction is going to be restricted,” he says.
Beyond working to rein in muscle imbalances, Lee says doing dynamic mobility warmups before runs and resetting with dynamic mobility or static stretching postrun as well as foam rolling to lengthen tissue will help when it comes to restoring mobility.
You Are Overstriding
In general, our instinct is to prevent the body from falling. That means instead of falling into our step while maintaining an upright posture, we tend to reach out and break, says Lee. “Instead of stopping ourselves with each step, get used to falling with each step and not losing posture,” advises Lee.
This requires a lot of strength along the posterior chain (calves, hamstrings, glutes) to keep you upright, which is why focusing on drills such as wall marching or as well as resisted running, for example, putting a pull-up resistance band around your waist while a partner holds the other end as you try to sprint forward, are also important.
“Anytime you are resisted, you are forced to go forward and not step out in front of you,” says Lee. He suggests performing resistance running drills, then doing 200 or 400 metres of running and repeating the process to help the brain and the body connect and to the action and reinforce it.
The bottom line: Concentrating on gait-related issues and what it takes to overcome them can make you more efficient, bringing gains not just to world-class athletes like the Tinman Elite, but to every day runners as well. And that means everyone has a chance at a running “victory,” which is what poor Pheidippides proclaimed upon his arrival.