A Contrast in Form: Variable Running Gaits at the 10K Mark of a Marathon/Half-Marathon

Sometimes a simple video can speak louder than words or any research study. Last Fall some of my students and I filmed nearly all of the runners in the Manchester City Marathon and Half-Marathon as they passed both the 6-mile (marathoners and half-marathoners) and 20-mile marks (marathoners only) of the race. The video below was taken at mile 6, and it speaks volumes as to the variation present in running form even among middle-of-the-pack-runners like the vast majority of us out there pounding the pavement on a daily basis.

In the video, note the dramatic contrast in stride and footstrike between runners 1 and 3 (flexed knee at contact, midfoot or very mild heel landings) and runners 2 and 4 (overstriding with extended leg, highly dorsiflexed foot, and pronounced heel strike). Runner 1 is wearing Newton shoes (2mm drop Distance Racers I think). Runner 2 appears to be in Mizuno Wave Creations, which have a large “shock absorber” in the heel. Can’t easily make out the shoes for runners 3 and 4, but they appear to be standard training shoes with a reasonably large heel lift.

A few points are worth mentioning here:

1. Overstriding is a very real occurrence in a race setting. Runners 2 and 4 both land on a highly dorsiflexed foot with a nearly straight leg that is extended well out in front of their center of mass (COM is located roughly near the hips). The thinking is that overstriding will result in the shoe and skeletal structures of the lower body absorbing much of the initial impact as shock travels through the heel and up the leg, and that this in turn might increase the likelihood of repetitive use injury in places like the tibia, knee joint, and hip joint. I would also suspect that the pronounced heel strike requires greater activity of the muscles on that anterior side of the lower leg (e.g., the tibialis anterior) to slow the foot slap that occurs after initial contact – this can be associated with things like the development of anterior shin splints.

2. In a midfoot landing with a flexed knee, and more or less vertical orientation of the lower leg at initial contact (runners 1 and 3), the soft tissues of the leg (muscles and springy tendons/ligaments) likely are doing more of the initial shock absorption, relieving some of the impact on the bones and joints of the leg (see below). It is possible, however, that increased muscle usage could also result in increased metabolic cost to the runner (see Derrick, 2004 for more on this).

3. As runner’s 1 and 3 show, it is possible to adopt a midfoot or very light heel landing in shoes that vary in their construction. My personal belief has grown to the point where I now view form as more important than shoes, and this video shows that you can adopt a potentially less impactful stride even in a more heavily cushioned, heel-lifted shoe. That being said, such shoes, in my opinion, make it much harder to get to that stride, and this is something I have experienced myself. Form and shoes are separate yet linked, and it is my belief that moving to less shoe with a smaller heel lift can help one to migrate away from and overstriding gait.

4. So, ultimately the question that arises is if you are an overstrider, what can you do? A few weeks ago I wrote a post discussing a paper published by Dr. Brian Heiderscheit and colleagues in the journal Medicine & Science in Sport and Exercise. Dr Heiderscheit’s paper showed that runners who adopt a quicker stride (increased step rate) reduced impact at both the knee and hip. The study showed that increasing stride rate by 10% increased the flexion angle of the knee at initial contact, shortened stride in terms of distance of the heel from the center of mass at contact, reduced vertical excursion of the center of mass (i.e., less bounce), reduced the inclination of the foot at impact (i.e., a less pronounced heel strike), and reduced braking impulses. Many of these changes were observed with even just a 5% increase in stride rate. There was a lot more to that study, and a limitation was that the results are not yet linked to reduced injury rates (a study is apparently underway), but the take home message was that adopting a shorter, quicker stride might be a good approach to overcoming an overstriding gait, potentially reducing injury risk in the long run (no pun intended!).

5. Finally, a personal note. I have been working very hard over the past several months on making these very changes (shorter, quicker) to my own stride. Why? Take a look at the video below of me from the same point in the Manchester race as the video posted above:

Runblogger Machester City Marathon from Runblogger on Vimeo.

Video of my footstrike/gait just after mile 6 of the Manchester City Marathon. Video shot at 300 frames/sec with a Casio Exilim EX-F1 camera. Courtesy of http://www.runblogger.com/.

This video was taken almost a year ago, and the pronounced heel strike is fairly apparent – I wanted to change my gait if for no other reason than to see if I could. After a long period of initial awkwardness, I now feel very comfortable running with a shorter, quicker stride, and most of the time now I seem to run on my midfoot or forefoot (depending in large part on shoe choice and fatigue). Will this make me a better or less injury prone runner? It’s hard to say, since I’ve never suffered an injury that has caused me to miss significant training time. The transition, however, has been amazingly interesting to experience, and I now feel like a switch-hitter in terms of running form. I can move between a heel and mid/forefoot strike easily, and I can tell almost instantly which is going to be more appropriate and comfortable in a given shoe. All of this is a continual learning process, and I suspect that my form will be a work in progress for many years to come – I look forward to it!

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About Peter Larson

This post was authored by Peter Larson. Pete is a recovering academic who currently works as an exercise physiologist, running coach, and writer. He's also a father of three and a fanatical runner with a bit of a shoe obsession. In addition to writing and editing this site, he is co-author of the book Tread Lightly, and writes a personal blog called The Blogologist. Follow Pete on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and via email.

Comments

  1. What do you think about Matt Fitzgerald’s take on pose and chi running?

    link to running.competitor.com

    • Pete Larson says:

      I tend to think it’s a case of “ask you favorite expert.” Amby Burfoot just
      recently interviewed the scientist from the University of Wisconsin on his
      Peak Performance blog (
      http://peakperformance.runners
      who seemed to very much think that form change was possible and of potential
      benefit. I know far too many people who seem to have clearly benefited from
      a change in running form to agree with that article (read my recent
      interview with Mark Cucuzzella for example:
      link to runblogger.com….

      It’s important to remember that changing form to the point where it becomes
      comfortable takes a lot of time – I speak from experience. Thus, I don’t put
      much stock in any study that compares metabolic efficiency of a new running
      form shortly after a change was made – it requires dedication, practice, and
      persistent effort. Furthermore, metabolic efficiency is just one factor to
      consider – what about impact reduction and injury prevention? Heiderscheit’s
      results are pretty clear about how increasing stride rate can reduce impact
      on the knee and hip.

      Pete

      • I think he does have a point though when he says that, if speed is your purpose, concentrating on running technique alone won’t make you any faster. At least in part it seems to work the other way around: Each speed generates it’s own gait.

        • Pete Larson says:

          I wouldn’t even necessarily agree with this. If better technique is not
          capable of increasing speed (e.g., by minimizing braking forces), then there
          would be no reason for Alberto Salazar (or any other coach for that matter)
          to be messing with Dathan Ritzenhein or Alan Webb’s running form/gait (the
          fact that he is has been well documented in the American media frequently in
          recent months). I have to imagine that coaches at Salazar’s level with
          access to the research facilities and biomechanical experts at the Nike
          Facility are on top of things when it comes to modifying running form.

          I would agree that there is far more to speed than just technique (training,
          physiology, psychology are all important), but to ignore technique and call
          it solely an unconscious process as Fitzgerald seems to assert seems a bit
          off to me. How many other sports can you think of where we tell athletes
          just to let it come naturally and don’t think about your form?

          Pete

    • Here is another interesting post by Matt Fitzgerald

      link to running.competitor.com

      In the article, you’ll find that Matt overcame FOUR YEARS of injury by adjusting his stride. I found it shocking that someone would write an article explaining how changing their gait helped them overcome four years of injury and then go on to write another article trying to debunk the notion of working on technique.

      Another interesting fact from the article: Matt used an identical cue from Chi Running – lean forward from the ankles – to get over his four year injury hump.

  2. Pete, I’m a little late on this, but do you have any tips on how to go about modifying your running form to shorter and quicker strides? While I’ve never videotaped myself running, I’m guessing my strides look a lot like your video from 2009. I’ve struggled with, as a recreational runner, whether I should bother with altering my stride, or just run as comes naturally. I did recently switch from the Brooks Adrenaline to Brooks Launch, but I am still heel-striking (and likely overstriding).

    Do you just tell yourself to take shorter, quicker steps? Or is there some kind of cue to help this process? I have read that 180 steps/minute is optimal, but right now I can’t seem to keep up more than 165-170 steps/minute (yes, I have counted…)

    • Pete Larson says:

      Anette,

      I’d say that if you have been running well and without injury, stride
      change may not be necessary for you. It’s a hot topic right now, so
      lots of people are thinking about doing it, but as I have no injury
      history my main reason for changing was just to see if I could. It
      took a long time, but I think things have finally clicked a bit me -
      whether it’s better, I have no idea at this point, and it’s still a
      work in progress. If you have a digitial camera that will take video
      clips, try filming and see what you look like – can’t hurt, and I have
      learned a lot from observing myself, and it really helped to make me
      more conscious of what I am doing form-wise.

      If you have had a history of injury, maybe some form work would be of
      benefit. For me, wearing Vibrams once a week for several months really
      helped – you can feel the ground a lot better, and you don’t risk
      injury as much by running in them less frequently. Short barefoot runs
      on a track infield can also help, or if you are brave you can even do
      them on smooth asphalt (i have and it’s kind of fun). I also found the
      cue to “put the foot down behind you” to be helpful in thinking about
      footstrike location – it’s not what really happens, but it’s a useful
      thing to make you conscious of form. Also consider migrating to lower
      heeled shoes for more of your everyday runs – something like the Nike
      Free or Saucony Kinvara are good intermediate choices.

      Whatever you do, take it slow, and expect that it will feel awkward at
      first. Form change takes time to become ingrained, and I’m still not
      sure I’m fully there – need to get my camera back out!

      Pete

      On Tuesday, September 21, 2010, Disqus

  3. Great post. With respect you your comment about changing your running style, I understand where you’re coming from. Around May this year, after consistent issues with ITBFS I decided to fix the cause rather than treat the symptoms. With a little help I’ve moved to quicker shorter strides and now transitioning over to minimal running as a result (my once great love for Asics 2100 series shoes is now gone, they feel awkward!). I haven’t enjoyed running more! It’s feels so much easier now and I haven’t had any niggles since May.

    Changing running style was the best thing I’ve done for a long time.

  4. Pete ,
    This is a great post and makes a strong case that one should not heel strike if they want to run for a long time (maybe even into the nursing home). As a doc folks are always asking me where the studies are. To study the long term degenerative effects of hard heel strike would take years. By watching the video one conceptually knows …this hurts.
    An analogy is what we are starting to learn about repetitive impacts in football and that it is not a good thing. The autopsy specimens prove it. Just this week a college football player committed suicide and the post mortem indicated he had chronic traumatic encephalopathy. link to cnn.com
    We have living autopsies of many former runners in the form of degenerative changes in the knees, hips, and back. Many are too crippled to keep running, at least in the form they are used to. We do not see these findings in barefoot societies, even though they walk way more than western countries.
    So why don’t we do the randomized trials for football? Let’s take one group and strike them on the head with a hammer thousands of times and take another group and apply repetitive incremental pressure that they sense and adapt too. Any volunteers? If you are considering it watch these NFL films.
    Parental discretion advised.
    link to wvpubcast.org
    link to youtube.com
    link to youtube.com
    link to youtube.com
    link to youtube.com
    link to youtube.com

    Happy trails
    Mark Cucuzzella MD
    http://www.trtreads.org

  5. This is a very nice post, so informative and interesting. Thanks for sharing such a great post.

  6. Bob Redding says:

    I’m jealous!! I wish I had a slo-mo of my gait before I started running minimalist and barefoot. Would love to be able to see the difference. I suppose I could try to “forget” what I’ve now programmed into my feet, ankles, and legs and get out my son’s high speed camera, but it just wouldn’t be the same.

    Anyway, great post. There is still so much to learn about this stuff and its fun to analyze and theorize AND be able to experiment on your own.

  7. Great posting. Thank you. I becoming more and more of an avid runner (30+ mi per week). I am 6’6″ and weigh 205. So, ie, tall and skinny but still 205 lbs. That means longer stride and some extra weight. What say you about minimalist runners with this physical make up (added stress on knees, ligaments, joints, etc???). I just got my first pair of minimalist shoes (NB 100). First run was an 8 miler, next 11, next 12. Felt fine after but the longterm problems?

    • Pete Larson says:

      I honestly don’t think we know the answer to questions like this yet – the
      return to minimalist shoes is a relatively new phenomenon, and a lot of
      research needs to be done on these types of things. Best I can say is to
      listen to your body, and ease up if anything starts to feel off. Rest is key
      during the transition.

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