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Gait 101: Learning to Run More Naturally

Posted on 27 August 2013

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by Dr. Phil Maffetone. 

Many beginning runners remark about how much they enjoy the new experience. They care little about the nuances regarding form, technique, or proper gait. As long as they are moving, accumulating mileage over a sustained period of time, they feel content and satisfied. But at the advanced and elite level of running, the concept of gait takes on an entirely new dimension of complexity, constant questioning, and evaluation by a coach or oneself.

But what is exactly meant by the term “gait?”  In running,  gait is typically defined as moving posture– 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 ranges of motion can one detect “abnormal” movements so as to help assess an injury or observe for the potential of future injury.

More importantly, there’s no ideal running form. While all humans have the same basic running pattern—just like other animals—your gait is yours alone. In fact, it’s easy to recognize your training 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 or her own; the same for every high-jumper, 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.  A flawed running form will raise the heart rate more than usual, making one fatigue quicker, and resulting in a slower pace. 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.

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.

Another factor affecting is gait is poor postural habit. We sit in chairs too long or slump at our desks. We stand with poor posture and even walk with an irregular 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

Screen shot 2013-08-09 at 12.55.18 PMWalking is associated with the foot first striking the ground with 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 in more detail.

An important  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.

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.

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. Usain Bolt’s height advantage, for example, works 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 rigid, over-supported 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.

Screen shot 2013-08-26 at 8.43.44 PMOther 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, and this often causes the whole body to have dysfunction, 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 until recently the majority of over-built running shoes caused you to land on your heel instead of further forward on your foot. This is because they were designed with large, over-supported heels and were 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 feet take the pounding force with each step without damage, but it takes that energy—from the gravitation force—and recycles it back to the feet 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.

Screen shot 2013-08-26 at 8.51.36 PMThis 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.

Running short distances barefoot will re-train your body’s natural gait

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 shoed. 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 automatically have to become a barefoot runner. For those who want to progress from walking to running, some might 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, natural therapy. Then add a walk on the grass barefoot, even for 10 minutes a day. The more time you spend going 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 heel striking  to landing more forward. You will also produce better pelvic movement and arm swing. And it allows 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, and deeply 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.

***
This is the first part of a two-part series on Gait, and much of the content is excerpted from Dr. Phil Maffetone’s “Big Book on Health and Fitness.”  Maffetone’s most recent book is “The Healthy Golfer.

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18 Responses to “Gait 101: Learning to Run More Naturally”

  1. MarkC says:

    amazingly insightful piece Phil. for our readers this is true wisdom. Dr. Maffetone has observed runners at all levels for over 40 years. his seemingly simple conclusions that are common sense principles have been validated by science and human experience since humans have been running. take your shoes off for a few strides, have fun, find your balance and spring, and reset the body.
    Mark

  2. Jeremy Huffman says:

    Markc,

    “”"”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 above quote is one area I don’t agree with. My knee is no more liked when walk than it is during running. In general he does seem to share your ideas of power model of movement. Understandable why you would find it insightful. Personally I find it wishy washy and inaccurate. Maybe I am wrong…..

    • ArtS says:

      Jeremy,

      Are you confusing “locked” with “straight?” Biomechanically, the knee _must_ move more when the body is running compared to when it is walking.

      I had hoped as this article addressed barefoot running that would at least mention how arch type can affect how easy it is to transition from support shoes to minimalistic/bare foot running. I’ve trained several students who wanted to try barefoot and those with high arches seemingly have a very difficult time of it.

      I also have _very_ high arches and no matter how I’ve tried to transition to barefoot/minimalistic I can’t. When I discovered the support of full-length arch supports in the 1980′s, I suddenly realized how everyone felt with the whole of the foot contacting the ground. Up until that point I suffered almost daily – high school & college cross country and basketball, backpacking, regular life.

  3. Jeremy Huffman says:

    Liked = locked

  4. Bob says:

    I’ve been wondering about this “running on hot coals” idea I’ve seen a few times. The Chi running people talk about this also. Here’s a video of Patrick Makau running in slow motion. About 10 seconds in, you get a close look at his feet. You can see that his foot makes good contact with the ground. You can see him pronate as his ankle and arch squash to absorb shock: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1FlnQzPzS2Q

    I’m wondering if telling people to pick up their feet quickly might have the unintended consequence of making them not achieve good stability and balance at mid stance. I know that there are videos of Haile Gebrselassie similar to the video above. These guys have quick turnover, but it seems like they make good, solid contact with the ground so that they are stable. Maybe stability and balance are as important in preventing injuries as quick feet.

    • MarkC says:

      Bob,
      yes you are right in that the foot needs to be loaded optimally to store and release energy. do not pick it up too soon. most run slow and sticky and the hot coal cue takes them in the right direction , but if dome too extreme you are inefficient. think pogo stick. throw foot to ground, let it load on stable kinetic chain, and pop off the ground. thanks for the comment.
      Mark

  5. max says:

    this article is very good and covers most of the bases. True about imbalances. Sometimes barefoot and proprioception will fix and sometimes not. In these cases, you need to go to a good PT or Chiro. Many East African or competitive runners get hurt at some point regardless of the shoes and efficiency. Too much overtraing gets many on the orhotic/stability path and so on. There is training including warmup and focused strength work and then running and then getting a more in-depth understanding of one’s biomechanics. holistic approach to being a complete athlete vs just running

  6. Iain Mackay says:

    I’ve had Achilles Tendonitis for nine months. I was at the last chance saloon, being 56 and having run for forty years it has been the worst running injury I’ve ever had. After trying many different approaches to ease the problem I thought I give barefoot running a go. Basically I had nothing to lose. I took myself of to the local park and tried 10 x100 meters barefoot. I felt very little discomfort during and after the session, but the next morning the usual pain and stiffness was there in the Achilles. I’ve persevered and I feel Im now on the way back. I’ve went to minimus NB shoes and completely changed the way I run, constantly checking posture, lean, cadence. I also bought a metronome and have it set to 180 steps per minute (Plenty good info on running form online)
    Im now running up to three miles and always finish with a barefoot session on grass.
    Three months ago I thought i’d never run again. Barefoot running has been a great healer and learning experience for me. I would not hesitate to recommend to try it.

  7. Bob says:

    Awesome. I mention it because when I started in my Altra Instincts running at a 180 cadence, I soon developed a problem in my left ankle. I eventually realized that I had problems balancing and being stable on that one leg. After sorting that out, and figuring out that I needed to “settle in” to my legs more and let them load properly, even at a fast cadence, my ankle problem went away.

  8. seb says:

    Mark,

    I would kindly appreciate if you could comment on the following. In this article and many of yours barefoot running on grass is recommended. For almost a year now, once a week I’m running barefoot for 20 minutes on pavements. I do believe it’s the best way I can learn good form. Rest of my runs I’m doing in skora, also mainly on hard surfaces. So I’m wondering if it’s safe and good to run barefoot on pavements? I’m a bit confused and latest trend of adding more cushioning to the minimalist shoes only augments my doubts.

    Thank you,
    Sebastian

    • MarkC says:

      Seb,

      I do lots of barefoot on pavement. love smooth roads. once strong in the feet this is the most enjoyable surface I think. ran our Freedoms Run Half Marathon course with friends barefoot yesterday except for a short trail section.

      thanks for the note

      Mark

      • I.Mackay says:

        There is a few of reasons why I started Barefoot on grass.
        1. I wasn’t sure how Barefoot running was going to work out for me and grass seemed the most sensible way forward. As a point of interest running on damp grass is a fantastic feeling.
        2. I live in an Inner City Area and some of the pavements are in a bit of a mess.
        I’ll give barefoot running a go on pavements when I feel Im completely over my achilles problem (see my post above) and my confidence has fully returned.

  9. Itai says:

    “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.”

    you got that part doubled.

  10. Jo says:

    The first photo in this article looks like a group of racewalkers. Unless I’m mistaken, this is a bit amusing for a story about running form. In racewalkling, indeed the knee of the ground-contact leg is “locked” or straight as the body passes over that leg; and racewalkers do heel-strike, though I’d say not in a high-impact manner. Dr. Mark, do you have any comment on whether racewalking form is injury-producing?

  11. Annie says:

    How do I fix a shortened achilles tendon and tendonites? Help!!!

    • MarkC says:

      Annie you must do eccentric exercises ….lengthen Achilles by dropping heel and assist on the push up recovery.
      do 3 x 50 a day…start w no weight then add weight
      also tight hip flexors contribute….roll them w foam roller
      need to see good PT too to assess the cause
      Mark


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