Getting Gait Right

Improving running mechanics is the single best thing athletes can do to improve their game in almost every sport played on land.

By Vern Gambetta

Vern Gambetta, MA, is the President of Gambetta Sports Training Systems, in Sarasota, Fla., and the former Director of Conditioning for the Chicago White Sox. He is a frequent contributor to Training & Conditioning, and can be reached through his Web site, at www.gambetta.com.

Training & Conditioning, 11.4, May/June 2001, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/tc/tc1104/gait.htm

Running is not only a fundamental motor skill but also a crucial ingredient of nearly every sport that takes place on land. Whether running is a direct sport component or a vital training activity for a given student-athlete, improving running mechanics can significantly improve his or her sport performance.

Running skill, like any motor task, is teachable and trainable. Using a systematic approach, you can help even someone who seems to be hopelessly ungainly improve his or her gait.

There are two goals in improving running mechanics: First, to learn to optimize ground reaction forces—the point of contact where all the forces are concentrated for a relatively brief period of time. The second goal is to achieve optimal efficiency, which means that less energy is expended to complete the same task. Not only will improved running mechanics translate to an ability to do more work, but it will also result in greater speed and a reduction in injuries.

Know the Laws
In running, as in all movement, there are three constants: the body, gravity, and the ground. While the specifics of each may change, all three are always there, and the athlete is always at the mercy of their basic laws. For example, the athlete must work within the laws of biomechanics and physiology. The body works in predictable patterns with all systems blending together to produce a desired movement pattern. We can manipulate the body and make corrections to its movement patterns, but only within its natural confines.

Gravity is the force we must overcome to propel the body forward. As gravity pushes the body down into the ground, the body must resist this force and then overcome it to propel itself up and forward. The ability to reduce the effects of gravity through shock absorption is a very important component of sound running mechanics.

Finally, improving running mechanics is directly dependent on the ability to use ground reaction forces effectively. This is the force that reacts to the push transmitted from the foot to the ground and propels the body. At speeds as slow as three to six meters per second, which is essentially a range from a slow jog to a run, the ground reaction forces are two to three times bodyweight.

Contrary to the marketing hype for various commercial programs, equipment is not necessary to improve running mechanics. Improving running mechanics is really about optimizing the relationship between the body, gravity, and the ground. Treadmills and other exotic apparatus will only interfere with the body’s ability to move naturally.

A Systematic Approach
As with any fundamental skill, a systematic approach to improving running mechanics will yield optimum results. The system I have developed is the PAL System, for posture, arm action, and leg action. These are the three main areas of emphasis in running. This system provides a context to analyze movement as well as a step-by-step teaching progression. It can also be used to design a criterion-based progressive approach to getting someone back to a normal gait pattern following an injury.

Posture is the most important of the three components—it has been my experience that if posture is improved, arm action and leg action will follow naturally. Posture should reflect the alignment of the body from the point of foot contact with the ground to the top of the head. The reference points for this alignment are the head, trunk, hips, knees, ankles, and feet.

The image and cue for good posture is that of “running tall.” After the start and acceleration, the sensation should be of running only at the very point of contact with the ground: lighter, taller, and with less ground contact time than during the acceleration phase. Good posture strongly reinforces this feeling.

Arm action serves two primary functions: the arms assist with balance as well as provide a strong propulsive force during the acceleration phase. The arms also play a vital role in helping to control the rhythm of running. The direction of the swing of the arms should result in linear motion. Running, like all other movements, involves movement in all three planes—transverse, frontal, and sagittal, with sagittal being the dominant plane of motion. But while some rotary, as well as side-to-side, movement of the arms is necessary to counteract rotation of the body and the mass of the legs, this movement should be minimal. Proper running mechanics requires controlling—not eliminating—rotational movement and side-to-side sway.

The amplitude of the arm action will vary with the speed of the run. The shorter and faster the run, the greater the amplitude of the arm action. Arm action will also be exaggerated at other times, such as when propelling the body up a hill.

The optimum leg action is to have the foot contact the ground as close under the body’s center of gravity as possible. This will yield the most efficient stride. The amplitude of the leg action as reflected in the knee lift and stride length will vary with the speed of the run. Good running mechanics requires an optimum interplay between stride length and stride rate (frequency). Each person has an optimum stride length in relation to his or her leg length and the distance he or she is running.

Making The Big Fixes
When observing the runner in an effort to improve running mechanics, observing from several vantage points will provide better analysis. Watching from only one vantage point will not allow the observer to see all aspects of the stride. Running should be viewed from the side, front, and rear.

From the front and rear, have the athlete run along the edge of a line, while you watch where his or her feet strike in relation to the line. He or she should run along the line—hitting the line with the insides of the feet—not on the line or crossing over the line.

Have the athlete run with different gait patterns—long strides and short strides, no arm action and exaggerated arm action, and with different foot strikes (forefoot, flat foot, and heel first). Observe how he or she accommodates or compensates. This is important to help you get the feeling of what is right for that specific individual. At first, don’t coach the athlete or make corrections, just observe the movement.

To correct running mechanics, it is best to use the Fault / Reason / Correction paradigm. First, identify the fault in the mechanics. Then find the reason for the flaw and correct it. Table One is a checklist of common running mechanic skill faults to look for and correct. This is by no means an exhaustive list.

Look at the big things first in the context of the PAL System. Get a sense of the flow of the action before looking at specific considerations. Focus on smaller pieces of the puzzle only after global considerations have been addressed. This is in concert with the whole / part / whole concept of motor learning—start with the whole action (in this case, running), then look at the parts. Decide what parts need attention. Design task-oriented drills or movements that will reinforce the correction of those parts. Rather than focusing on the fault you are trying to correct, give the athlete a task to achieve that will correct the fault. Allow him or her to explore and solve the movement equation, then, as soon as possible, relate the drill back to the whole action.

In designing drills to improve running mechanics, consider the following questions:

• Why drill? Drill to reinforce correct patterns or to change or improve incorrect patterns.

• What drills? The drills should be as directed and specific as possible. A few drills clearly defined and well chosen are better than a large number of general drills that dance around the issue. Beware of drilling for drills’ sake—make sure the drills are truly reinforcing correct mechanics that relate to an individual’s specific needs. A common pitfall to avoid is designing drills that break the movement into too many component parts. Always relate the drill back to the whole action of running.

• When should drills be done? The optimum time for learning is when the athlete is fresh and fully recovered from any previous training stress. Therefore, drills are best done near the start of a training session.

• How to do the drills? Based on the objective of the respective drill, make sure the athlete correctly executes it.

Drills alone may not be enough to significantly improve running mechanics. Improved strength can also be a big factor. Segmental weakness can contribute to poor mechanics, especially in the core. Therefore, it is important to couple any program that attempts to improve running mechanics with a sound strength-training program that utilizes multi-joint and multi-plane exercises.

Target the Training
Running mechanics vary with and must be adapted to the speed of the run. A sprint has different demands than a distance run. The most visible change along the continuum from a sprint to a long distance run is in the amplitude of the movement. A sprint demands longer stride length, greater air (flight time), and shorter ground contact time, as well as vigorous arm action, higher knee lift, and a forefoot foot strike. Efficiency is not as much of a consideration as is the pure production of power.

A distance run will have shorter strides, much shorter flight time, longer ground contact time, a mid-foot to rear-foot strike, and lower, more economical arm action. The longer the distance run, the more important efficiency becomes.

Improving running mechanics is not a quick fix. Like any other motor skill, it is teachable and learnable, but it demands constant attention and fine-tuning. It requires body awareness, balance, and good basic core and leg strength. Each running step is a step toward ingraining a new motor pattern or reinforcing an established pattern.

By working to improve running mechanics, athletes will improve their balance, speed, and endurance, and help to prevent injuries. Improving running mechanics yields a greater range of benefits than improving practically any other single skill.


Table One: The Checklist
The following is a checklist of running mechanic skill faults that need to be screened when observing an athlete. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it provides a good idea of what to look for.

Posture

Leaning backward
Bending forward at the waist
Excessive side-to-side sway
Head position—back or forward

Arm Action

Arms swing across the midline of the body
Arm carriage: Too high/Too low
Abbreviated arm action
Excessive arm action

Leg Action

Foot strike—exaggerated forefoot or heel contact
Stiff hips
No knee lift


Resources
The following resources are useful for those seeking further information on running mechanics:
Gambetta, V., Winckler, G. Sport Specific Speed—The 3S System. Gambetta Sports Training Systems: Sarasota, Fla. 2001.
Gambetta, V., Odgers, S. Straight Ahead Speed [video]. Available from Gambetta Sports Training Systems, at www.gambetta.com.