Science on the Run
Linking current research to running
By Nikki Reiter
‘Change your mechanics to be a better runner’ or ‘Your body selects the best way to run.’ You’ve heard both sides of the debate, but is it possible to change your gait, and is it even worthwhile?
Clinicians have been successfully changing the gait patterns of individuals with motor dysfunction for years. It is only somewhat recent that everyday running has followed suit. So far, various researchers have shown support for using real-time visual feedback, as well as proprioceptive cues, for altering gait patterns related to an individual’s specific injury.
While making gait changes is no simple task, a novel approach has been taken by a group of researchers from Ithaca College in New York, who published an article in November’s Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. They investigated whether an instructional class in running mechanics for recreational runners can lead to desirable changes in gait, and thus improvements in running economy (running economy describes the energy cost required for a given running speed).
Here’s how it went: Recreational runners underwent an 8-week training program (5 hours total) in ‘Midstance to Midstance Running (MMR),’ which focuses on a primary goal of lifting the heel to the buttocks as quickly as possible after ground contact, taking advantage of the body’s reflex to create hip extension in the supporting leg and a resulting ground contact of the foot aligned under the body’s center of mass. What this means is that isolating a single focus is thought to simplify the process of gait change. Participants were instructed to also practice this technique during their personal training runs.
The result? Well, no significant changes were found in heart rate, rating of perceived exertion, or running economy for the experimental group (there was a control group that did not receive instruction). However, the study supports the notion that gait changes are possible through an instructional class, as changes in stride rate and length were achieved. This is good news for runners who have been prescribed a necessary gait change of these variables. Interestingly, even though lifting the foot from the ground immediately after foot contact is the foundational instruction of MMR, there were no significant changes to how quickly the heel was lifted to the buttocks. Whether the cue to lift the heel quickly and vertically from the ground is enough to elicit change could be up for debate. Perhaps more training or feedback is necessary.
Since running economy can be affected by training, environmental, physiological, structural and biomechanical factors, there is a complex combination and incredible potential for improvement when it comes to factors that can be manipulated. Given that running economy has been referred to as one of the most common predictors of distance running performance, it makes sense, from a performance standpoint, to fine-tune our bodies to use as little energy as possible to run as fast as possible.
It has long been accepted that changing one’s gait is accompanied by an increased energy cost. It is also difficult to anticipate how long it would take for a new gait pattern to become more economical, especially for experienced runners whose motor patterns are engrained. The MMR group of runners in this study had all been running for at least two years, however their ages ranged from 23-66 years, which could encompass a great difference in experience level and a varied ability or willingness to change their mechanics. So while it’s true that new runners will gradually find their most economical running style based on their physical structure, an experienced runner may require more time or a different approach to changing their style.
As a final note, a warning. If you try to fix your mechanics unnecessarily, it’s likely that you’ll end up with a new injury. A change at one joint will likely change overall mechanics. Although MMR may not be the best style of running for high performance athletes, it may be a better style for novices or for those with high injury rates needing a change.
Nikki Reiter is the Head Coach of Cross Country Running at the University of British Columbia Okanagan in Kelowna, BC, Canada. With a master’s degree in Biomechanics and as a trained exercise physiologist, she takes a scientific approach to training her athletes. Additionally, Nikki offers online gait analysis through Run Right Gait Analysis. Visit her website www.run-right.ca for more information.