What is a Gait Analysis and Why Should Every Runner Get One?

What is a Gait Analysis and Why Should Every Runner Get One?

I can’t remember which pair of shoes I bought when I first got into running a few years ago — and that’s a problem! Like a lot of fellow novice runners, I bought something online that looked like a pair of running shoes, threw them on, and hit the pavement. The pavement hit back, and everything hurt — shin splints, calf soreness, and quads that felt like they’d been on the wrong end of a meat tenderizer. But, that’s the price of getting into running, right?

Not necessarily. Turns out, running doesn’t (always) have to be painful. It all starts with getting into the right pair of running shoes for you, and odds are you’re not going to get them by accident. That’s where the gait analysis comes in.

The gait analysis — a detailed look at the way you move when running to determine which shoe is right for you — is at the center of what we do at A Runner’s Mind. Each shoe from each brand is purpose-built for a specific kind of runner and a specific kind of running, and if you don’t throw on the pair that makes sense for your situation, it could contribute to a lot of unnecessary pain down the road. We’re here to make sure that doesn’t happen. The ARM team is stacked with experienced runners who have performed hundreds of gait analyses — we’ll watch you run outside, take a short video, and explain exactly what we look for and how it factors into choosing a shoe. We’ll even talk about good technique and some simple changes you can make to your form to help you stay healthy on the run!

And trust me, it’s worthwhile! After all that pain, I stopped picking running shoes at random and went to get my gait analyzed. I found out that I hadn’t actually bought a bad pair of running shoes, they just weren’t the sort I needed. I got matched up with the shoes that made sense for me, got back out on the pavement, and I’ve been running ever since. At A Runner’s Mind, we want to make sure every runner has that kind of experience!

Need some more details? We hope so! There’s so much more that goes into matching a person with the perfect pair of running shoes for them, and we’re more than happy to share.

What is a gait analysis?

So, what exactly is a gait analysis? It’s when someone watches you run, but it’s not weird at all! Someone with a ton of experience watching other people run (that’s us!) will take an in-depth look at what a runner’s body looks like as they run for a short distance — not just the feet! Subtle cues in the ankles, knees, hips, and even torso can give us a lot of information about what kind of shoes a runner needs and how they might be able to improve their form to prevent injury. It’s a shopping aide, an injury prevention tool, and a little bit of training, all in one. So, pretty sweet deal.

You may have heard of the gait analysis before, and perhaps are imagining a treadmill and at least two people standing behind it, scribbling into notebooks as they look intently at your every step. Super fun for everyone, promise. It’s a legitimate way to do it, but a little outdated thanks to huge leaps forward in camera tech! Now that high-resolution, slow-motion video can be taken with a smartphone, it’s way easier to record a short video of someone running on a treadmill or on the sidewalk, then run it back in slow-motion to make sure we catch all those subtle movements made by the body while running — as valuable as experience is, it’s awfully hard to notice all those details when watching someone run on a treadmill in real time. And with video, we can review the footage with you to explain exactly what’s going wrong (or right!) and what can be done to stay healthy.

Pronation, overpronation, or supination?

The word you’ll probably hear most in a gait analysis — pronation! And absent any prefixes, it’s not a bad thing. When we’re running, we’re absorbing a ton of shock in the foot whenever we strike the ground. The foot and ankle move a little to support the body, then push it off to the next step. There needs to be a little flexibility there, so if we see the ankle turn in a little bit during the gait analysis whenever your foot makes contact with the ground, that’s a good thing!

As long as the leg is straight and aligned — from ankle to knee to hip — when it’s weight-bearing, we’re in business. Overpronation happens when the ankle turns too far inward, pushing the lower leg out of alignment and forcing the inside of the foot to absorb too much shock. That can lead to a whole range of injuries, with problems that can even move up to the lower back! Not ideal. Often, overpronation is associated with lower or fallen arches, but this isn’t always the case — overpronation can be seen in a wide variety of runners, and for very different reasons. Some runners overpronate for reasons that can be fixed by strengthening, mobility work, and improving technique, and that’s why it’s always a good idea to do a gait analysis every time you buy a pair of running shoes — as you grow and develop as a runner, your gait can (and often will!) change.

In rarer cases, we’ll see something called supination. You can think of it as the opposite of overpronation — the ankle rolls too far out instead of in, putting more pressure on the outer part of the feet. Even though different parts of the foot are suffering, the basic problem of shock not being absorbed evenly is present. When the feet and legs are absorbing shock evenly when running with normal pronation, the body can take the sort of pounding that the pavement dishes out from under you. If something’s out of alignment, bad things can and all too often do happen.

Strengthen those muscles

If you’re a beginner, it’s always good to remember that you’re suddenly telling certain muscles in your body to work a lot harder than they have before. That tends to make them cranky, for some reason. It’s also an important factor in gait analysis — when our muscles can’t quite support the body like they should while running, the joints have to compensate. That can lead to unstable knees and misaligned hips, things that can turn into major long-term problems. And as always, it’s good to remember that the body is only as strong as its weakest link — if you’ve got those huge runners’ calves but weak glutes or tight hips, that can lead to overpronation or the feet pointed outward when walking or running, both of which can throw the legs out of alignment and cause problems. Fortunately, there are ways you can strengthen those muscles even when you’re not running.

Enter cross-training! Swimming, cycling, lifting weights, yoga — there are tons of activities you can pick up that can help strengthen muscles without all the repetitive impact of running. It’s always a good idea to mix some of those in along with a consistent stretching routine to make sure those freshly worked muscles stay loose. Foam rollers and deep tissue massage rollers are terrific investments, too, as they help keep muscles from tightening up. They can help make sure muscles don’t tighten up during runs, and they can help loosen up muscles and encourage recovery at the end of runs and workouts. Here’s one more quick tip — sleep. Sleep a lot. Making sure you get your seven to nine hours daily is crucial to your body’s natural recovery process, and sleeping enough to stay alert and focused during your run can help you avoid mishaps while on the roads and trails (hi there, tree root sticking out of the ground!).

Improving your running form

The gait analysis also allows us to take a look at your form, something that can have a huge impact on not only injuries and discomfort, but on what kind of shoes you should ultimately be getting into. For example, a gait analysis can tell us whether you strike the ground with your heel or your forefoot. If you’re a forefoot striker, you might not need all the cushion usually found in the heel of a traditional running shoe. If you’re a heavy heel striker, well, you do. You’re going to want to trust us on that one.

A lot of improvements to form will happen naturally as you strengthen your muscles while running and cross-training. But, some things you’ll have to constantly monitor, and drills can help. We’ll have loads of videos and posts about those up for you to check out!

Just having a chat

But, maybe above all, a gait analysis is a conversation. So much of what a gait analysis can tell us needs to be supported by what you tell us — that’s why we ask you a few key questions before taking a look at your gait. Knowing that you’ve had a serious injury in the past (or that you’re coming back from one now) can completely change the conclusions we draw from your body’s biomechanics during the gait analysis. And when it comes to picking a pair of shoes for you, knowing where you’re running and for how long is huge. If you’re speeding through 5Ks on non-technical trails, you could probably use a lighter, faster shoe. Planning to pound out a road marathon? You’re going to want a little more cushion. Well, a lot. A lot more cushion.

The conversation shouldn’t end when you buy a pair of shoes, either. That’s why we at A Runner’s Mind are ready to answer any questions you have throughout the life of your shoes. We’re here to help you make little tweaks to your form and routine to help make sure you get the most out of your new pair of shoes. And, when that pair is worn out, we’ll be more than happy to start the whole process over again with you — you’re going to keep growing and changing as a runner, and we’re here for it.

Why get a gait analysis?

You’ve given us all the details about what kind of runner you are, we’ve checked out your gait, and we’ve come up with some conclusions. What do we actually do with all that information? Well, a big part of it is definitely getting you into the right shoes! Running shoes are incredibly specialized these days — your gait, your running habits, and your goals all figure heavily into figuring out exactly which pair is right for you. But, a gait analysis can also be instrumental in understanding why certain aches and pains in the legs and back have been cropping up, and in figuring out what you can do (besides getting the right shoes!) to help get yourself feeling right again.

Neutral vs stability shoes

In the most general sense, there are two types of running shoes — neutral and stability. And while stability sounds like it would always be a good thing, it’s not well suited for what we call neutral runners, or runners who have a normal amount of pronation in their gait. Traditionally, stability shoes have a denser piece of material in the medial (or inner) side of the shoe that doesn’t compress as much when weight is put on it, which helps nudge the ankles of runners who overpronate back into alignment. Neutral shoes have the same density of cushion all the way around the shoe, since no correction needs to be made to the gait of neutral runners.

There’s a wide variety of stability shoes. Light stability shoes with subtle high-density material are made for runners who overpronate slightly, and tend to be on the lighter side. High stability shoes, or motion control shoes, tend to be a much more structured and cushioned, with significant amounts of high-density material — runners who overpronate heavily will want to look into these. There are a ton of shoes that exist between those two extremes, so a gait analysis can really help you figure out where on that spectrum you fall. On top of that, some brands and shoes have wider or more snug fits — what you’ll settle on depends on what kind of feel you prefer.

All that being said, I did use the word ‘traditionally’ when I started talking stability shoes. It’s an exciting time in the world of running shoes — many shoe brands, including some newcomers, are starting to rethink the way stability should be approached. Dynamic stability shoes combine the more traditional elements of stability shoes with new ideas, like finding ways to nudge runners into a faster, more efficient stride. By getting us from impact to toe-off faster, the foot is supporting the weight of the body for a shorter time — this could be a big help for runners whose overpronation gets worse as they push through their stride, and it’s definitely handy for runners who overpronate more on one side than the other (and there’s plenty of you out there!). Most shoe brands out there have their own unique take on dynamic stability, so it’s an exciting time for running shoes. We’ll be here to keep you updated in the months and years to come!

Getting the right amount of cushion

Some shoes go all out on the cushion. On the other hand, you’ve got the minimalist shoes that put almost nothing between you and the ground. What’s the best way to go? It depends on you! Your running habits, goals, and form will tell us a lot about what level of cushion will work best for you. Cushion isn’t just about how much foam or gel is underfoot, either — it’s also worth considering drop, or how much more cushion is in the heel than the forefoot. I know, it’s a lot to take in. The running shoe rabbit hole goes deep.

Here’s a good way to understand it all — if you’re pounding pavement and logging a lot miles with a heavy heel strike, you don’t want a minimalist shoe. Heel striking isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does send a lot of shock shooting up the legs. If you don’t have a ton of cushion in the heel to help absorb that shock, your shins and knees will feel it. That’s why a lot of traditional running shoes have high drops, putting much more cushion in the heel than the forefoot.

Change some of those variables, and you can start changing what kind of shoe you buy. Switching from pavement to a well-maintained dirt trail will substantially decrease the amount of shock coming back up from the ground, which makes lighter, less cushioned shoes a little safer to use. Only targeting 5K distance instead of a marathon? You can safely sacrifice some cushion for speed, or keep that cushion around to be extra safe.

Your running form makes the most difference. If you forefoot strike or midfoot strike, all that cushion in the heel can amount to dead weight. Lower-drop shoes make more sense for these runners, and since the ball of the foot is pretty good at absorbing shock, a little less cushion overall is possible, too. But, be warned — unless you’re an experienced runner, forefoot striking is tough, especially over long miles. It taxes different muscle groups, and it does take a transition period to really ease into it. Even then, your calves are going to feel it! It’s important to not rush into a change in form (or any change!) as big as this one, because trying to stress those unused muscles too much, too soon can lead to nagging overuse injuries. If you’re thinking about making that kind of change, talk to us! We can help gradually nudge you toward that goal with both the right kind of shoes and advice on how to adjust your form slowly and safely.

Preventing injury

In the end, this is what it’s really all about. The gait analysis and the conversations we have before and after are all to make sure that you can run without suffering from one of the many maladies that can afflict runners. That can include shin splints, runner’s knee, tightness in the Achilles tendon, stress fractures, or even lower back pain. All of the above can keep a runner off her feet for a long time, and it’s important to remember that those ailments aren’t rites of passage — while there’s no way to guarantee that you’ll avoid injury while running or engaging in any high-impact activity, getting into the right shoes, incorporating strengthening exercises and cross-training, stretching, adjusting your diet, and improving your form can all come together to give you a much better chance of running pain-free for a long time to come.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Oh, and here’s one more good injury prevention tip — don’t use worn-out shoes! After 300 to 400 miles of use, the cushion in most shoes will be pounded down and not absorbing shock with the same effectiveness as before, and those numbers are even lower for shoes designed specifically for racing. If the tread on the underside of your shoes is worn flat or you’re feeling a little more shock in your joints than you usually do (listen to your body!), don’t hesitate to replace your shoes! They might not be cheap, but replacing them costs a lot less than being saddled with a nasty overuse injury.

I’ve already had a gait analysis done — I’m good, right?

Not necessarily! As we’ve seen, a lot of things can change in the time between a gait analysis and your next pair of running shoes. Ideally, those changes include adding muscle and improving your form, but sometimes it can mean having suffered an injury — running-related or otherwise. All of the above can change your gait and change your running shoe needs. Whatever the case, just remember that a gait analysis isn’t forever. Instead, think of it like a regular checkup for your feet — it’s a chance to monitor progress, diagnose new problems, and make sure that the conversation between us and you is founded on the most recent information.

After all, just like the rest of your body, some fixes aren’t meant to be permanent. In some cases, stability or rigid orthotics for arch support (a whole other discussion!) end up being temporary measures to help alleviate temporary discomfort or the pain of plantar fasciitis. They can be kind of like casts for broken bones — once you’re healed up, that cast isn’t doing anything for you! For runners, unnecessary stability or orthotics can have negative consequences by preventing the foot from strengthening on its own. If the arch can’t collapse and spring back up while you’re running (a completely natural motion), the foot can become too weak to support itself without the orthotic insert, turning something that should have been a temporary fix into a permanent crutch.

Fortunately, the insert game is changing just as fast as the shoe game. Flexible arch support inserts, from brands like Currex, provide much-needed support when form slips due to fatigue without making the foot dependent on all that structure.

But, as always, every case is different — in some more serious cases, that kind of rigid support really does become necessary. What’s right for you can change over time, and while getting into the gear you find to be most comfortable is ultimately the most important thing, it’s always good to regularly step back, reevaluate, and reconsider your goals as a runner. Besides, it’s always fun to try new things, right?

The gait analysis is a beginning, not an end

When we do a gait analysis for you at A Runner’s Mind, we’re trying to get you into the right pair of running shoes, first and foremost. But, we don’t believe in just selling you a pair of shoes and sending you on your way. There’s so much more to running besides just getting the right gear, and there are some things that (try as we might), we just won’t be able to see in the gait analysis. That’s why we look at the gait analysis and a pair of running shoes as a beginning — we want to be there for you throughout the life of those shoes (and the next ones), helping you to get the most out of your gear.

And sometimes, we just won’t get it right the first time. As good as we are at fitting runners for shoes, it happens! It’s hard to tell whether or not a shoe works for you until you’ve used it for a few runs (it takes a while for your feet to give you good feedback sometimes). So, if you buy a pair and something’s not feeling right, talk to us! If you feel like returning a pair of shoes you’ve purchased, we can help you figure out whether you need a different pair of shoes or if the solution can be found in making tweaks to your form or by introducing cross-training. We know everyone’s going to have a different experience, and that’s why we want your experience with A Runner’s Mind to be one that doesn’t end with just a purchase. Getting the right pair of shoes takes work! At the end of it, we want to make sure that you remember the shoes that got you past the big milestones, whether it’s setting a new PR, letting you have more quality run time with your dog, or conquering your first marathon!

So, talk to us! Let us know why you run — your habits, your goals, and the things that trip you up. No matter what running means to you, we’ll be able to use our expertise and the gait analysis to help you realize those goals, and maybe even help you discover that you’re capable of much more than you thought!

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