In grad school, my dream job was working in a running gait lab. I wanted to watch people run, dissect their form, and identify the movement flaw at the center of their injuries and plateaued performance.
And then, I spent a decade in clinical practice.
Running gait analysis is a service I’ve offered for over a decade. I’ve watched hundreds (maybe thousands) of runners and advised them on how to stay healthy based solely on how they moved. I have given a lot of bad advice.
Let’s break down six ideas to consider, before booking that gait analysis.
There isn’t an ideal way to run
A few years back, Izzy Moore published a landmark paper dissecting if there was an economical running technique. Running economy (RE), an essential variable in training and performance, measures your efficiency. Improving your running economy means you can run the same distance and pace with less effort, expected improvements you’ve likely achieved through a consistent block of training.
While they found sound minuscule variables economical runners displayed, overall there wasn’t anything for runners to immediately start running.
There wasn’t ideal, economical form.
Perceived problems don’t have actual solutions.
I’ve had many runners scour the country, searching for the correct technical analysis of their stride. Their journey often leads them to a university lab with an expensive treadmill, fancy sensors, and more data than imaginable. Without fail, the conclusion of their gait analysis is the same.
“Subject exhibits excessive hip drop, dynamic valgus, prolonged rear foot eversion.” And the solution is always…
“Subject should improve lateral hip and core strength to correct aberrant movement patterns.”
Then, they’re given a basic hip strength program of clamshells, glute bridges, and fire hydrants. For some reason, the solution to every running problem is stronger hips.
There are a few assumptions here, the first being any specific form characteristic is a problem. I can guarantee that countless healthy runners display the same movement faults.
The second assumption is you can change distance running form with low-level exercises, something we don’t see happen in practice. Depending on the region of the body, you may be absorbing 12x your body weight with every foot strike. A couple of weeks of introductory bodyweight exercise won’t push the needle enough to change how you move.
Running form isn’t static
Your form will likely be consistent during a gait analysis. Running on a treadmill at a set speed and incline creates an ideal environment in collecting data. But it’s a poor representation of how you run through your neighborhood, on your local trails, or at track night.
Running form is dependent on many factors. Here are a few:
Your form adapts and changes based on circumstance. If your body were a rigid lever fixed to a sole movement path, your tissues wouldn’t adapt — they’d break!
Anatomy influences movement
Some runners are built faster than others. You didn’t pick your genetics or select the length of your achilles tendons, just like Michael Phelps didn’t choose his long torso and massive wingspan. There is likely some anatomical advantage to specific bony structures, but that doesn’t mean your anatomy predestines your ability to stay healthy.
If you examine your local running group, you will see a wide range of running styles likely reflecting each individual’s unique anatomy and experience.
If you have naturally stiff ankles, you’re likely a forefoot striker. Shorter legs? You probably have a higher step rate than your long-legged friends. Anatomy influences movement.
Running form changes with experience
How you run will change with experience without your conscious thought. Like breaking in a baseball glove or comfy chair, your movement will adapt with more exposure and experience.
High school runners run differently across four years, gradually increasing their step rate from their first year to graduation. Older runners often increase their step rate as their calf capacity decreases in later years. Your running form will change throughout life.
Your body is adaptable
Here’s one of my favorite research sentences from Hart and colleagues.
“Bone has unique geometrical and morphological properties, which expressly and functionally adapt to routine mechanical loads to enhance bone strength and stiffness in the absence of bone mass.”
Similar to the previous point on anatomy, your body will adapt to its environment (i.e. your unique form).
Changing movement is risky
Changing the way you move pulls you further away from what your body is prepared to handle. A change in movement might be helpful in a short-duration power based activity likel swinging a gold club, but changing your movement over thousands of repetitions of a run can easily get you injured.
Another Hart quote to consider –
“Bone is anisotropic in nature, having different thresholds of load tolerability across different planes of action. Bone gets better at the stuff it deals with. Introducing different types of stress can be catastrophic if not introduced steadily, progressively.“
Didn’t we see this with the popularity of Vibram Five Fingers?
A change in environment (footwear) likely caused a shift in movement, leading to a rash of ankle and foot injuries.
A change in form doesn’t warrant a mechanical solution
I’ll often get runners who say their form feels “off” and need a gait analysis to uncover the problem. The assumption is the solution to their “offness” is a choosing to move different. Activate this muscle, subtly rotate your arms to the left, or lean more from the ankles and your form will feel normal again.
When you feel “off,” you aren’t a train needing to be put back on track. Often, you have injury you may not be ready to come to terms with. Most of the runners who want to book a gait analysis with me are actually physical therapy candidates.
Other times, you have a more significant issue like low energy availability, low iron, or hormonal dysfunction. Your movement feels different because something “system-wide” needs to be addressed.
Gait analysis can be an essential tool in the context of injury, but has little utility during healthy training.