Most runners aspire to be better than they were the day before. Whether you want to run farther, faster, or just feel better doing it, many runner’s feel a fundamental need to improve their performance.
Running gait is the most basic means of analyzing running form, and hence, improving running speed and endurance. It also helps address running faults to decrease your risk of injury.
Running gait is the cycle a leg travels through during one step when running. The cycle includes two main phases: stance and swing. Within the swing phase, there’s a subphase unique to running called float or flight.
Stance includes the time when your foot initially makes contact with the ground until the body is over the foot. This is the period of impact and absorption.
As your body travels ahead of your foot, you transition into the swing phase of gait when your foot leaves the ground. Your leg travels forward, flexing at the hip and knee before making contact again.
During this swing phase, there’s a moment during which neither foot is in contact with the ground and your body is floating in the air unsupported. This is called the float stage, and it’s the main difference between a running and walking gait (1).
The running gait cycle has two main phases: stance and swing. The length of one cycle begins with the contact of one foot and ends when the same foot contacts the ground again.
As mentioned, one running gait cycle includes two phases. Let’s take a closer look at what happens during each phase.
The stance phases of running can be further broken down into the following contact points (2):
- initial contact
- toe off
Initial contact is also known as the heel strike. However, there are variances in which part of the foot makes contact with the ground first.
Every person’s gate is unique. Your stance could make initial contact with a heel strike, mid-foot strike, or forefoot strike pattern (
During initial contact, your lower limbs and body absorb force as your foot strikes the ground. Ground reaction force — or the force the ground exerts on your body — occurs, causing the greatest amount of impact at this point in the gait cycle (4).
Biomechanics research has investigated the optimal point of contact with the ground to minimize the impact force on the body. Your ankle and knee muscles primarily dampen the force and protect your joints, but the extent to which this occurs depends on your body’s unique patterns.
Also, there are variances depending on your footwear.
For instance, rear foot or heel striking tends to be more common among those running in shoes, compared with barefoot runners. The impact of a heel strike when barefoot is much greater; as such, barefoot runners tend to shorten their strides and land with their forefoot first (5).
After initial contact, the body travels over the foot and leg until it’s relatively directly over the foot, with the knee slightly bent. This is called mid-stance.
At mid-stance, your body transitions from its lowest point, absorbing force toward its highest point to prepare to generate propulsive force. The foot rolls in from a supinated position to a pronated position.
Finally, during the toe-off phase, your body is ahead of your foot. The hip, knee, and ankle joints are extending to propel your body forward.
Consequently, during one limb’s stance phase, the opposite limb is swinging through. The time a limb spends in stance during the gait cycle is approximately 40%. This is shorter than the total of the swing phase (6).
As the foot leaves the ground, the forefoot pulls up (dorsiflexes) and rolls in (supinates). Also, the knee flexes, allowing for optimal clearance of the foot over the ground during the swing.
As mentioned above, the swing phase lasts longer than the stance phase. It begins after the foot loses contact with the ground and terminates when the foot contacts the ground again.
Thus, there’s a momentary period during which neither foot is in contact with the ground due to the overlap of the swing phases of both legs, which is known as a the float phase.
The float subphase, also known as the flight subphase, differentiates running from walking, and happens during the swing phase.
When walking, one foot is always in contact with the ground. However, in running, there’s a period during which both feet are off the ground at the same time.
Some research has concluded that highly trained runners maximize this flight time. In the most efficient runners, there is an 11% greater increase in flight time compared with untrained runners (7).
Arm swing during running gait
During the gait cycle, the arm opposite the stance leg should be in sequence. This means both advance and extend behind the torso together. The arms’ job is to counterbalance the rotation from the opposite leg, which contributes to proper running technique.
During the stance phase, your body experiences the greatest impact. The swing phase and its float subphase comprise 60% of the gait cycle. The arms swing as a counterrotation to leg advancement.
From a running gait analysis, you can see the mechanics of your running.
An analysis allows you to see components of movement, such as your stride length and foot contact placement. It also allows you to see where your joints may not be supporting you adequately, as well as where there are poorly controlled movements.
Analyzing running gait includes examining the following components:
- Are your arms crossing the midline of your body?
- Is your trunk rotating excessively during each leg’s advancement?
- Is your pelvis dropping to the opposite side of the stance leg?
- Is your pelvis rotating forward excessively?
- Are your knees aligning with the feet?
- Are your feet landing just inside the width of the pelvis?
- Are your feet landing excessively rolled in or out?
- Is your head upright and stable?
- Are your arms flexing ahead of and extending behind your torso?
- Is your trunk rotating excessively?
- Is your pelvis rotating forward excessively with each stride?
- Is your foot landing in front of your body?
- Is your knee bent upon landing?
- Are your trailing knee and ankle bending to prepare for swinging your leg through?
Common issues seen during the gait cycle include: overstriding or landing with your foot ahead of your center of mass, excessive vertical translation of the center of mass, and insufficient arm swing (
Overstriding means that your foot lands in front of your center of mass. This causes a braking effect on propelling the body forward.
Excessive vertical translation of your body means that some of the energy of your upper body causes your body to bob up and down excessively. This creates higher energy demands and diminishes forward propulsion.
As mentioned previously, arm swing acts as a counterbalance for the opposite leg advancement. During insufficient arm swing, there’s excessive rotation of the lower body, which is less efficient.
Running gait analysis allows you to see abnormal movements that reduce the efficiency of your running. Three common issues are overstriding, excessive vertical body translation, and insufficient arm swing.
The easiest way to analyze gait is via video. This allows you to see your movement through each phase of your gait.
It’s best to video the subject running from multiple angles — ideally from the front, back, and one or both sides. This can be done by mounting a camera and running past it or running on a treadmill.
Video can be shot using the camera on your phone or tablet. There are also apps that allow you to analyze your form, such as Coach’s Eye, SloPro (only available on iPhones at the time of this writing), or Hudl.
These apps allow you to view your running in slow motion, as well as in real time. It’s also possible to view segments of an entire run.
You can also get a professional gait analysis, which are typically performed by a physical therapist. Some running coaches may also provide this service.
Gait analyses can also be performed in a biomechanics laboratory, but these are not as accessible for most people. The priority is to have someone skilled in biomechanics and analyzing movement to identify subtle issues.
First, wear clothing that conforms to your body and is not loose or baggy. Doing so allows for a clear view of limb movement.
Also, it’s best to take multiple passes in front of the camera. If filming on a treadmill, wait to film after a few minutes. This helps ensure the runner is not “posing” for the camera and in a more natural state.
It can be helpful to video at multiple times during a run, such as toward the beginning of a run when your muscles aren’t fatigued, or at the end to see the changes in mechanics that occur.
It’s best to analyze your gait using a video recording. Apps are available to video with, or you can consult a professional for analysis.
It takes effort and practice to improve your running gait, but it is possible. One of the biggest difficulties is that changing one variable in your running form will likely cause a change in another area of your running form.
In addition, one review found that adopting a multifactorial change in biomechanics resulted in either no improvements or worsened running economy (
You may benefit from making small changes, one at a time, and assessing the difference.
Also, a natural, relaxed arm swing may help. In general, avoid over-stiffening your muscles during the stance phase of your gait.
A myriad of other factors may help your running gait. However, you’ll get the most benefit from discussing this with a physical therapist or running coach who can assess your unique body and stride.
It’s possible to improve your running form. However, avoid making multiple changes at once. Also, assess whether the change improved your running. It may be beneficial to consult a coach or therapist.
Running gait consists of two main phases: stance and swing. Each phase presents it’s own considerations for optimal biomechanics.
Gait analysis is a helpful way to assess your running mechanics. This helps improve your running speed and endurance, as well as reduce your risk of injury.
Consult a professional running coach or rehabilitation professional if needed. Look for one that has experience in analyzing movement, especially running.
It can be difficult to make changes to your form. Start with small changes, focusing on making one adjustment at a time. With a little bit of practice and effort, you’ll be on your way to better endurance and less pain.