The Running Gait Explained & The Importance of Proper Footwear
Footwear is a crucial piece of equipment for a runner. It is critical to find a shoe that compliments their gait; this enables them to not only run more efficiently but to prevent injury as well.
Before choosing the perfect shoe, it is important to determine your running gait and understand the phases of a gait cycle.
What is a Gait Cycle?
A gait cycle is a period during locomotion when the foot contacts the ground to when that same foot touches the ground again and involves forward propulsion of the centre of gravity. The gait cycle is split into two main phases: the stance phase and the swing phase.
When running, a higher proportion of the cycle is in the swing phase, as the foot is in contact with the ground for a shorter period. Because of this, there is now no double stance phase. As there is in walking, instead, there is a point called the float phase where neither foot is in contact with the ground. As running speed increases, stance phase becomes shorter and shorter.
As speed increases, the step length, cadence, and ground reaction forces also increase, therefore increasing the risk of injury – this is why selecting appropriate footwear is imperative to minimize the chance of damage.
Now let’s break down the running gait to see what the lower limbs are doing in each stage.
Initial contact is when your foot lands on the ground. It begins with foot contact (either heel, midfoot or forefoot) and ends when the forefoot is on the ground. It is the cushioning phase of the gait cycle.
At this stage muscles, tendons, bones and joints function to help absorb the impact of landing. The foot pronates (rolls in) and plantar fascia (connective tissue on the bottom of the foot) stretches to allow the foot to expand and absorb the landing.
Dorsiflexion occurs at the ankle joint accompanied by knee flexion and hip motion to help distribute forces of impact up the kinetic chain. Quadriceps and calf muscles transfer the energy of the impact from the ankle to knee to hip.
As this phase progresses to midstance, the foot moves from pronation into supination (rolls out) to prepare for toe-off. Overpronation occurs at this stage when there is too much movement inwards, and instability occurs causing a delay in re-supination.
This stage is a single support phase meaning that all weight is on one foot and the stance leg is more susceptible to injury. The weight of the body has a flattening effect on the arch, but the feet are adapted to resist excessive collapse.
READ MORE: 5 Ways Orthotics Improve Running Performance
Someone with a flexible foot may have less resistance to collapse and be more prone to plantar soft tissue strain at this stage. The hamstrings shorten and contract as the leg continues through the stance phase.
Propulsion (Take off or Toe off)
The Gastrocs, Soleus and Achilles Tendon (the muscles on the back of the leg) contract, causing Plantar Flexion of the ankle and allowing for toe-off.
Propulsion begins as the heel lifts off the ground. The hallux (big toe) dorsiflexes and there is a tightening of the Plantar Fascia helping to raise the arch of the foot. This ‘windlass mechanism’ is important, as it allows the foot to act as an effective lever.
During propulsion, the foot should be supinated allowing the bones of the midfoot to brace against each other and produce a rigid structure capable of propelling the body weight forward.
If something delays the windlass mechanism, as in an abnormally pronated foot or due to poorly designed footwear, the foot will not function properly during late midstance and propulsion phases of gait, and this may increase the risk for injury.
READ MORE: 5 Most Common Running Injuries
The swing phase occurs when the lower extremity swings through the air from toe-off to foot-strike again to begin a new cycle. This phase is important to set the foot and leg up in preparation for contact in the next stance phase.
This stage consists of forward through, forward swing and foot descent.
Maximum knee flexion occurs during this phase for the foot to clear the ground. The float phase is where no foot is on the ground, and the runner is essentially floating through the air. This phase includes hip flexion and a forward rotation of the pelvis activated by pelvic and core muscles. The quadriceps contract to slow activity during late-swing and the hamstrings lengthen as the lower leg extends at the knee.
The descent of the foot to the ground begins. The opposite leg is finishing stance phase at this time.
How does the Gait Cycle apply to footwear?
The first point of contact is either the heel, midfoot or forefoot. Knowing where the foot contacts the ground has useful information as to where loads are placed on the body.
With heel strike landing, most often the lateral heel hits the ground when the foot is in supination. Midfoot or forefoot running helps dissipate impact forces more than landing on the heel due to the greater amount of plantar flexion at contact versus the stiffness of the foot at heel contact, which lacks the ability to absorb shock efficiently.
Cushioning in the heel is important for someone who is a heel striker, as is having a shoe that has a good rearfoot rocker to move from heel to toe quickly. Shoes such as Hokas limit heel contact to promote more midfoot to forefoot striking thus lessening impact forces and energy through to toe-off.
Hoka shoes are also ideal for limitations in the gait cycle at toe off. It has a strong forefoot rocker, so if anyone is limited in hallux dorsiflexion it will assist to propel them forward into a more natural toe-off.
Another useful stage of gait to determine footwear needs is through midstance to propulsion. If a runner overpronates, there are features to help control this. Controlling this would offer for a more efficient gait and less strain on soft tissue. Features such as a strong heel counter, torsional stability, and posterior/lateral crash pad are also necessary to prevent overpronation and control hindfoot movement.
There are shoes such as the ASICS 2000 series or Brooks Ravenna that we carry at Kintec that are helpful to control over-pronation. If the runner is also using an orthotic, a neutral shoe would be more appropriate to prevent overcorrection.
Another example is a runner who underpronates and lacks the ability to attenuate shock; these are usually the high arched people. The outer side of the heel hits the ground at an increased angle with little to no normal pronation. This causes a large transmission of shock through the lower leg. They tend to toe off on the smaller toes on the outside of the foot. They would benefit from a neutral running shoe with a lot of added cushioning. Examples include the ASICS Nimbus, Brooks Glycerin and Mizuno Creation.
These are just a few features to look for when selecting performance footwear. Other features regarding surface terrain, distance and the location of your pain will help you find the right running shoe.
A fitting expert can perform a gait analysis on you. After the analysis, we can help you select footwear options that would be most suitable for your gait cycle. If you would like a more detailed 4-point running gait analysis, stop by The Run Centre in North Vancouver.
Lyndsay Iezzi, B.Kin, C.Ped (C)