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.
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.
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.