Many patients who have experienced running-related injuries consider embarking on changing their running gait in an attempt to improve their efficiency and avoid re-injury. This begs the question: is this is a good idea or not? What are some things to consider that relate to human gait?
Every body moves uniquely – Even casual observation of human gait will reveal the many ways in which people are mobile. Take a moment in a busy public place to watch the various forms of walking and you will see many styles: duck-footed, pigeon-toed, bow-legged, quick strides, loping strides, rigid, relaxed, symmetrical, asymmetrical. The list is endless, and while there are certainly common types of gait, the fact remains that each person has their own unique style of movement. The same is true for running.
The Art of Crawling – Development of human motion from infancy to childhood follows a somewhat predictable neurologic pattern. The old saying, “you have to crawl before you walk” is in most cases true because crawling establishes in our neuromuscular system a critical sequencing called reciprocating gait, where the right and left sides of the body perform alternating mirror images of each other.
So, are there as many variances in crawling styles as there are in running styles? The answer is no, and one big reason for this is that crawling is inherently more stable than running. Being on hands and knees allows the body to explore moving with four points of contact with the ground. The big leap to standing takes you down to just two points of contact. Further progression to walking requires balance on a single leg at a time. Running is obviously also single point contact, but consider that on landing phase the body has to handle 3-4x body weight (think balance, stability)! Fewer points of ground contact are a big deal when considering human gait.
The Body’s Center of Mass (COM) – Located somewhere close to the navel is your body’s center when considering weight distribution right/left, up/down, and front/back. Exact location of COM is constantly changing. It moves slightly more to the left when standing just on the left leg, more to the front when leaning forward up on tip-toes, and moves lower to the ground when crouching down to navigate across an icy sidewalk.
Center of mass and its ever-changing location then becomes one of the primary demands that the body must manage to successfully walk across the room, or run a 10k without falling down.
Neuromuscular Programming – With literally millions of repetitions, the sequencing of joint motions and muscular actions to walk/run becomes a very subconscious activity….yes, almost on auto-pilot. When was the last time you had to “think” about how to walk across the room, or to run across the finish line?
So when setting out to change your running form you are making a very conscious alteration to what has previously been a subconscious activity. Your muscles and joints have been programmed, good or bad, to that sequencing and now you, the brilliant one, are determined to change it. Besides, you read that advice on the internet, and advice found there is always good right? Do you sense a potential problem here?
What do Running Coaches Say? – Some of the best and most experienced running coaches I know are leery of advising their clients to make changes to their running gait. Say what?!?
One coach said it quite well. “My clients run the way they do because that’s how their nervous system learned it. So many times when they set out to change it, they get hurt”. Several coaches have also pointed out that clients often get so excited to make changes that they try to rush the process.
Is There Any Good News? – Yes. The good news is that an evolution of your running gait can be done, and it potentially may help you in several ways if done correctly, and you avoid injury during the process:
– Improved efficiency; less energy expenditure.
– Better ground reaction time; meaning you spend less time in the shock absorption phase, a common phase of gait during which injuries occur.
– “Primary running muscles” rule; improved technique can help key muscle groups have a better chance to assume their jobs.
– Overall decreased potential for overuse injuries.
– Good looking race photos; you might look less like an octopus falling out of a tree, and more like a real runner.
Regardless of the ‘running method’ you are choosing to adopt, understand that there are keys to success. My first advice is patience. Learn to crawl before you walk/run. An ideal situation would be to make time to integrate form changes away from your regular workouts. In other words, don’t head out the door for a 5 miler with intentions of gait changes throughout that run.
If there’s just no time for separate ‘form workouts’ consider working on technique changes for short bouts (30 second bouts, later 60) and perform repeats at the end of your easier or shorter runs. Spend no more than 6 minutes total on your drills initially.
Second, use good “body sensing”. Listen for changes in foot-striking. Does it sound symmetrical or asymmetrical? What changes in muscle work do you feel? Does your posture feel semi-relaxed, or rigid and forced? A tell-tale sign of problems is when there is noticeable muscle fatigue or soreness asymmetrically the day after a workout or form drills.
Remember, when you are changing your gait you are altering neuromuscular firing patterns and your muscles need time to learn, adapt, and grow. During this process you might also give those tissues some T.L.C. by doing a little more work on the foam roller, using a stick self-massager, or better yet getting some professional massage therapy.
Last, it should be noted that a quality physical therapy, running specific, biomechanical assessment might be worth your time prior to making changes in your running gait. Uncovering asymmetries and imbalances, and learning how to correct them may save you from weeks or months of frustration and injury. That same work most likely will improve your overall performance potential anyway!
Get Better…Be Your Best…Run On!