How important is the perfect gait?
Watching the current IAAF World Championships is fascinating on many levels. The standard of athleticism in both the men and the women is fantastic and as a study of human movement is the premier league.
I have watched quite a lot of the competition over the last few days and it is interesting to hear the pundits discuss and analyse the technical aspects of all the different sports. Toni Minicheiello is a breath of fresh air with his analysis of all the technical sports and his eye for detail.
Most interesting to me is being able to study different gaits which vary so much as we move from the sprint events, the track distance events and the marathon around the streets of London. At various times, the pundits have briefly touched on how important the gait is for different events.
At both end of the scale from 100m – to the marathon, correct gait is surely essential but maybe for different reasons.
Sprinting is clearly a very technical event and maximum efficiency in gait equates to maximum power output. Michael Johnson refers to the need for stiff feet to bounce off the track. The contact time with the track is as short as possible and the power comes from the fascia acting as a giant elastic band.
As the distance get longer the need for efficient gait equates to energy saving and no wasted effort. Watching the women’s marathon on Sunday displayed a very varied display of running styles. Paula Radcliffe was somewhat indifferent about the need to work on perfect running form but interestingly the people who take the medals always appear to have very tidy symmetrical styles. Paula felt that each athlete will find their own natural style depending on body geometry. However, I wondered how much of it is coached. Both the Japanese athletes, Kyota and Ando run with minimal arm swing. Also noticeable was the two athletes from Tanzania, Ramadhant with a small forward lean gait while her team mate Shauri has an extreme forward lean that looks very awkward. This made me wonder if a coach in each of these countries had tried to introduce a new style and trained the athletes to change their natural style. Either way it looked manufactured and unnatural.
There are some consistent features across the entire spectrum, possibly disregarding the Japanese and Tanzania athletes.
Looking at gait from the head down, we see some regular themes.
1. Heads high – allowing the eyes to be level and looking forward
2. Chest high, allowing the rib cage to remain lifted well away from the pelvis, creating a nice long tension through the abdominal wall.
3. Pelvis remains level, side to side, acting as the foundation point from which the trunk can produce power and the legs can operate effectively. The leg pattern then changes dramatically between the short and long distances but again there are consistencies.
4. The foot plant is with feet pointing forwards symmetrically and into the stance phase you see the knee remain stable over the middle of the foot. The modern HD TV allows us to see the foot pronate and then spring back. Pronation is a perfectly normal part of the gait cycle, and to me, pronation only becomes over-pronation when the knee begins to deviate inside the big toe creating a twisting load in the knee, around the hip and into the lower back.
5. In all events you don’t see any heel striking. The point of contact is consistently below the centre of mass, roughly around the belly button, which means the momentum of each stride is falling forward into the next stride. Heel striking creates a small force trying to drive the C of M backwards and is ultimately very expensive in energy use and load on knees and hips. At speed, this will waste your power output, at distance this will waste your energy. If you add up how many strides a marathon runner does in a race (180 strides per minutes x 150 minute = 27,000) plus the 100 miles a week in training and very quickly an efficient and injury free gait becomes essential.
6. High cadence up at around 180 strides per minute is more common with elite athletes. Thus, they end up with quite a short quick stride but it does help to ensure landing on a midfoot, only with more amateur runners do you tend to see a lower cadence of 120 strides per minutes which allows a heel strike gait to take place.
If these 6 basics are in place, the other details are possibly more negotiable. The exact angle of knee bend in the stance phase may vary. The amount of hip extension and subsequent heel lift will often vary. Ideally the arms drive forwards and backwards like little pistons, but if they drift across to touch mid line this may not be a big issue. All these things may depend on the natural joint angles of the hips and shoulders.
Whatever level of running you currently do your gait is important but probably quite individual. Primarily good gait should reduce frequency of injury. The biggest block to making gains in performance is not being able to train consistently over a training block, so reducing the risk of injury makes athletes more “robust”.
Secondarily, improving your gait, will allow improvements in performance, whether you are trying to run faster by producing more power, or run further by being more efficient.
Observing your own gait is tricky to do. Even setting up cameras to film outside is difficult as you run out of shot very quickly. Filming or observing yourself on a treadmill is a better option. It is slightly artificial but will highlight any faults or asymmetries.
Ultimately, like getting your bike set up correctly it is worth getting a professional like myself to look at your gait, whether you are just starting or if you are struggling with repeated niggling injuries that are halting your progress, it is worth the investment to get it looked at. Often simply highlighting some small errors and some simple corrective exercises are enough.
Next chapter – I will explore how the body as a fascial structure responds well to good gait and discuss the pros and cons of correct footwear.