In theory, running is supposed to be easy—you slip on a pair of running shoes, pick your path, and go.
Unfortunately, it’s a little more complex than that. There are a number of factors that can get in the way of you putting one foot in front of the other. One in particular: your gait, which is how your body moves in space as you run.
“[While] there’s no ‘right’ way to run, we do know in terms of injury prevention or perhaps efficiency for movement for performance, there are better ways to do it,” Heather A, Milton, M.S., R.C.E.P., C.S.C.S., exercise physiologist supervisor at NYU Langone Health Sports Performance Center, tells Runner’s World.
It’s worth noting that gait and stride are slightly different things: gait refers to the cycle your leg travels through during one step, and stride length is the distance covered between the spot where one foot hits the ground and the next time that same foot hits the ground again, which Robert Maschi, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., associate clinical professor in the Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Sciences department at Drexel University and the leader of Drexel’s Running Performance and Research Center, previously told Runner’s World.
Additionally, your foot can interact with the ground in different ways:
- Pronation: Your foot rolls inward
- Supination: Your foot rolls outward
- Neutral: Your foot doesn’t roll to either side
When you land, you should be doing so in a way that sets your body up for success, according to Doug Adams, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., a certified running gait analyst and creator of RunDNA, a portable 3D clinical-based motion analysis device. That means “your foot is stacked underneath of your knee, and then you can maintain a good posture throughout the stance phase,” he tells Runner’s World.
Those who struggle with their running gait—whether due to strength deficiencies, pathomechanics (elements in the running form you want to minimize), or simply being unaware of their own running mechanics—can be linked to one of five main gait categories, says Adams:
- Glute amnesiac
Each comes with its own set of identifying factors that can impede efficiency, and, more often than not, lead to very particular injuries—but these categories aren’t a foolproof way to predict potential injuries. In fact, research in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports involving nearly 300 injured and healthy runners found that there is no single gait pattern that reduces the likelihood of developing an injury, explains Reed Ferber, Ph.D., director of the Running Injury Clinic at the University of Calgary and one of the study’s authors.
Still, many running experts agree with Adams’s research-backed categorizations. (He literally teaches courses in gait analyzation.) Here, Adams, along with a few other running experts, dive into what’s behind these five categories and what tweaks you can make to maximize your running.
1. The Overstrider
Who they are: Runners who land with their foot way out in front of them with less bend in their knee and their toes more pointed toward the sky.
The cause: These runners often have a low cadence, which is the number of steps you take per minute. An optimal cadence when running is around 180.
Why it may be a problem: “This running pattern is consistent with greater impact forces across the foot, knee, and even the hip,” explains Colleen Brough, D.P.T., an assistant professor in the physical therapy program at Columbia University and director of the Columbia RunLab. “I would argue that these runners may be at greater risk of developing bone stress injuries.” Think: shin splints, stress reactions, and stress fractures. Not to mention, your foot landing in front of your center of mass acts as braking force, which is going to negatively impact your pace.
How to identify it: Look at a picture of yourself running from the side. Draw a line straight up from the ankle. If your foot is way in front of your knee, you are overstriding.
What you can do: You want to do drills (think: standing as close as you can to a wall and marching in place) that teach you how to land with your foot stacked underneath your knee, advises Adams.. Increasing your step rate by 5 to 10 percent can also help correct an overstrider’s pattern, adds Brough. In fact, research shows that a quicker cadence, even if it’s subtle, can “substantially reduce the loading to the hip and knee joints during running,” which can help ward off injury. Last, Milton suggests cueing runners to land softly, which she says “typically gets people a little bit more with their feet underneath them and maybe even shifting more to the midfoot if they are a heavy heel striker.”
2. The Collapser
The cause: This pattern is often driven by poor lumbopelvic control, says Brough, which is the inability to maintain good control of your pelvis when standing on one leg.
Why it may be a problem: Many runners who present with hallmark running injuries like patellofemoral pain syndrome, high hamstring strain, and Achilles tendinosis have a “collapser” running pattern, says Brough. You’ll also likely see IT band syndrome, bone stress injuries, and shin, hip, and back pain, says Adams.
How to identify it: Perform 1 to 3 reps of a single-leg squat to see whether or not your pelvis drops to one side or if your knees drift inward.
What you can do: Most commonly, this is a strength issue, and you need to shore up your core, hip, and glute strength, according to Adams, who also notes that you can have a stiffness that can force you into these mechanics as well. Strengthening your quad and lower back muscles will also help to prevent collapse, adds Ferber.
3. The Bouncer
Who they are: Runners who are pushing themselves up instead of pushing and propelling themselves forward.
The cause: Tight hips limit mobility, making it harder for your leg to extend behind you when you run, explains Adams. The result: You take off earlier and move straight up and down. Tight calves or weakness in your glutes or back may also be a culprit. Milton says a “bouncer” likely has less posterior chain strength in general.
Why it may be a problem: The higher up you go, the more gravity’s pulling you down, which means more ground reaction forces when you land, according to Milton. This results in a higher risk for stress fractures and shin splints. You’ll also recruit a lot more of the quads for braking, says Adams, which can then cause knee pain.
How to identify it: Invest in a smartwatch that measures vertical oscillation (the up-and-down bounce in your stride). “When you are doing easy runs, if that number is in the 9 to to 10 centimeters range or higher, you’re on the verge of bouncing too much,” says Adams.
What you can do: Adams suggests going back to those wall-marching drills, but this time, put a sticky note on the wall and use it as a visual guide to keep your body from going up and down too much.
4. The Glute Amnesiac
Who they are: Runners who overuse their hamstrings, calves, and/or lower back muscles to power their run instead of engaging their glutes.
The cause: Blame all that time you spend sitting typing away on your computer at work or binge-watching your favorite show. Here’s why: When you’re stuck in a seated position for long periods, your hip flexors get stuck in a shortened position and become tight, which can cause the glutes to stop firing properly.
Why this may be a problem: Not only do glutes equal power, but they also help stabilize the pelvis. Glutes that aren’t firing correctly can contribute to hip pain, lower back pain, and anterior knee pain, says Adams. Not to mention, a study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise revealed that glute size was the difference maker between elite sprinters, sub-elite sprinters, and non-sprinters.
How to identify it: These runners often lean really far back—think Bernie Lowmax in Weekend at Bernie’s, says Adams—so they don’t have to use their glutes to keep their body upright, says Adams.
What you can do: Resisted running is key here. Adams advises putting a resistance band around your waist while a partner holds the other end as you try to run forward. This forces your body into that slightly forward lean when you run, which is more optimal and helps you get more comfortable with this position, which can feel a bit unstable, says Adams.
If you are experiencing anterior knee pain, which accounts for 40 percent of running injuries, as a result of you not using your glutes, Adams says you can almost instantly fix the issue by simply leaning forward. “This takes a lot of the stress off the back side of your body and puts it on the front side of the body,” he explains. Ferber also says that side leg raises and other exercises that strengthen your hip abductor muscles will help manage this gait pattern.
5. The Weaver
Who they are: Runners who operate on a narrow base of support, when leg lands too close to the midline of the body.
The cause: These runners often have poor glute and core activation during running, which translates to poor lumbopelvic control, says Brough.
Why this may be a problem: For Ferber, who calls this a cross-over strike pattern, he says running this way places increased stress on the IT band. Research in Sports Biomechanics backs this up, revealing that those with a narrower stride width have greater IT band strain and strain rate. You may also experience lateral shin pain, Adams says.
How to identify it: These runners are notorious for kicking the inside of their leg. They also have a lot of arm swing back and forth because “they’re trying to combat the motion of their legs, so they’ll swing their arms more across their body than forward and backward,” says Adams, who also notes that these runners often wear out the outside of their shoe very quickly as well.
What you can do: Find a line on a nearby track or the road (be super careful of cars!), put one foot on the line, and don’t let the other foot touch the line while you run, Adams advises. The goal here is to try and keep your legs a little wider apart. Ferber also suggests hip strengthening to help support the IT band and reduce tension.