Should I change my running gait pattern to protect my legs?

by Samantha Stadt, PT, DPT, FAAOMPT

With the multitude of trends and literature available on different styles or patterns of running, it is difficult to determine what is the best approach for enhancing performance and injury prevention. Individual running form is often a reflection of not only training and skill level, but joint mobility, muscle length, and motor patterns. There should not be a one-size-fits-all approach to running form, but researchers suggest that there are a few key parameters that can be fine-tuned to help you keep logging miles.

Three things to keep in mind while running

Over-striding hits hard

Running is not (typically) a contact sport, but the impact of every stride can put a great deal of stress on the musculoskeletal system. If the amount of stress as a result of running put on the body is appropriate, this can help a runner build strength and endurance. However, if these same stresses are too great, the system can break down and nagging running injuries may pop up. Over-striding is a common running gait flaw that increases the impact of each step throughout the skeleton and hits the breaks on running performance. Over-striding involves the runner landing with his or her lead foot far in front of the body. Instead, runners should aim to land with the foot close to or underneath the body to allow the muscles to accept and mediate the impact rather than just the skeletal system absorbing the hit.

Cadence Matters

Researchers (Anderson, 2013; van der Worp, 2015) have found that cadence—or the number of steps per minute—can largely impact running injury risk. Runners that have a lower cadence are often over-striding and resulting in more impact and stress throughout their legs when running. Alternatively, runners with an higher cadence are far more likely develop a healthier running gait pattern, landing with their feet underneath their body with less deviations that waste time between steps. An easy way to calculate your own cadence is to count steps during a regular run.  The optimal cadence, or sweet spot for lowering injury risk with running, is about 180 steps per minute.

Now, getting more steps in does not have to mean running faster – it simply means increasing your leg turnover and efficiency.  Once you have your cadence, try out a metronome set to 180 beats per minute and see if you can match your footfalls with the beat for a few minutes of a run. There are plenty of apps out there that offer metronomes, even some that can be synced with your favorite running playlist!

Position that pelvis

Another common flaw in running form involves tilting of the hips or pelvis during the landing phase of running. When the foot contacts the ground, the hips should stay relatively level. If one hip dips towards the earth with the landing, this wastes energy and changes the biomechanics throughout all the joints, creating injury risk. There could be a multitude of factors playing into this excessive “hip drop,” but the most common is weakness in the gluteus medius. The gluteus medius is a hip muscle responsible for maintaining pelvic stability during one-legged activities and moving the leg into abduction (lifting leg out to the side, away from the center of the body).

There are some key exercises that a runner can perform to strengthen hip musculature and help work out the kinks of their running form. Single-leg balance activities with an emphasis on keeping the hips level, clamshells, straight-leg raises, and resisted side stepping or band walks are just a few ways to target these important hip muscles.

Speak to a professional

Considering all factors that are at play, it is best to consult a physical therapist or exercise professional for a running gait analysis that will point out areas of injury risk and give specific recommendations on changing your form for performance and injury prevention and treatment. 

References:

Anderson, O. (2013, January). Running Science. Ommolketab Library. http://ommolketab.ir/aaf-lib/asl5ayjtjge3ruaa9i5djrpre5j5hu.pdf

Souza, R. (2016, February 1). An Evidence-Based Videotaped Running Biomechanics Analysis. PubMed Central (PMC). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4714754/

van der Worp, M. P., ten Haaf, D. S. M., van Cingel, R., de Wijer, A., Nijhuis-van der Sanden, M. W. G., & Staal, J. B. (2015, February 23). Injuries in Runners; A Systematic Review on Risk Factors and Sex Differences. Gale Academic OneFile. https://go.gale.com/ps/anonymous?id=GALE%7CA422547847&sid=googleScholar&v=2.1&it=r&linkaccess=abs&issn=19326203&p=AONE&sw=w

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