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How to Determine Your Running Gait—and Why It Matters

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Photo: Inti St Clair / Getty Images

In theory, running seems like the simplest form of exercise: You lace up your shoes and hit the pavement (or the treadmill). But without a proper understanding of your own running mechanics, you might be doing your body a disservice—and potentially setting yourself up for injury.

"It's really common for runners to not actually know how their body is moving and where their body is landing," says Claire Wood, who specializes in global performance running footwear at New Balance. That's where the topic of running gait comes in.

So What Is Running Gait, Anyway?

Essentially, your gait is your manner of moving on foot. While everyone gets from point A to point B a little differently (think of how you might be able to spot a friend from a distance by the way she walks), understanding your gait—which is first developed, crazy enough, when you learn to crawl as a baby—and where you fall on the scale can be a useful tool for helping you run more adeptly.

"Everyone has their own signature to their gait, which allows them an efficient pattern of movement over ground," says Mark Cucuzzella, M.D., who has designed running programs for the U.S. Air Force and is the author of Run for Your Life: How to Run, Walk, and Move Without Pain or Injury and Achieve a Sense of Well-Being and Joy. "Your posture, as well as your foot's interface with the ground, are two critical things that make normal gait possible; if either of these are suboptimal, you will make compensations, which can, over the long term, add stress and strain to tissues not designed to deal with these stressors." (See: How Weak Ankles and Poor Ankle Mobility Can Mess with Your Body)

Running gait is broken down into three types of pronation, or how your foot strikes the ground.

  • Neutral/normal pronation is when your foot comes in complete contact with the ground, rolling inward about 15 percent to absorb shock.
  • Underpronation or supination is when the outer part of your heel hits the ground first, and your foot rolls inward at less than 15 percent.
  • Overpronation occurs when your foot rolls inward more than 15 percent, which can cause stability issues with your foot and ankle.

So why should you even care? When shopping for running shoes (oh heyyy, 2018 Shape sneaker award winners), it's helpful to have an understanding of your gait, as it will affect which shoes will enhance—rather than hinder—your performance.

How to Check Your Running Gait

If you're really serious about running, the best way to zero in on your gait is to visit a specialty running store where an expert can analyze your form as you run on a treadmill. For beginners, though, home is a great place to start.

Recruit a friend: The easiest way to determine your gait is to have a friend watch you run from behind, says Wood. If your knees are coming in, you're overpronating; if they're turning out slightly, you're underpronating. (Here are 10 things everyone can do to improve their running technique.)

Keep track of your aches and pains: It also helps to write down your running history. Record when you run and how you felt afterward: Did you have pain on the inside of your shins or knees? If so, you might be overpronating. Pain in your ankles can signal underpronation.

Check out your soles: Take note of the wear pattern on your current running shoes, too. Does the inside tip of the shoe look worn? If so, that's a sign you're overpronating. Underpronators will notice more wear on the outer edge of their shoes. You can also line up your well-worn kicks and look at them from behind—do they appear to tilt outward or inward, or sit flat?

Try the wet-foot method: The wet foot method involves making a wet footprint on a paper shopping bag or piece of heavy paper—but there's a caveat. While this is an effective method for determining the shape of your arch, it doesn't tell you everything about your gait. "People think a high arch means a natural gait and a low arch means an overpronated gait, but that's not always true," says Wood. For the wet foot method to work, you need to bend your knees significantly to see the results of weight on your arch.

Luckily, You Don't have to Change Your Gait

Now that you know a little more about how you run, use that info to your advantage. Understanding your gait can help you run longer, stronger, and injury-free. Regardless of what you learn, there's really no reason to try to correct your gait; science says the best running stride is the one that comes naturally to you. While podiatrists have pushed orthotics in the past to control pronation, a 2015 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found no evidence that foot pronation is a variable in running injuries. However, both Wood and Dr. Cucuzzella say they have seen runners experience pain in their shins, knees, hamstrings, and lower back correlating to wearing the wrong shoes for their gait.

When selecting a running shoe, "the principles of a shoe should be to allow your foot to behave like a foot under the conditions that you are using it in," advises Dr. Cucuzzella. In his opinion, that means wide at the toes, no elevated heel, and not super soft, which allows the foot to have contact with the ground and give you optimum balance. "If you don't think this is true, try a flat, wide shoe for a couple weeks and see how you feel." (Or try these sneakers that actually monitor your running gait while you're wearing them.)

Another thing to keep in mind, says Wood, is that you're not the same size in running shoes as you are in a heel or slip-on shoe. "It's not uncommon, especially in women, for their running shoes to be too small," she says. A helpful tip: When trying on shoes, make sure you have a thumbnail of room from your longest toe to the top of the shoe. (Heads up: There are a bunch of other things to keep in mind when buying sneakers if you have flat feet.)

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