Written by: Lindsay Scott MSc.PT, MCISc, FCAMPT
When we think of taking up a new sport, usually the word “learning” makes its way into our vocabulary. Take, for example, “I would like to learn to play tennis”. You sign up for tennis lessons and have a coach or instructor walk you through technique, drills, and form, providing feedback, pointers ad tweaks along the way. Independent of novice or expert, competitive or recreational, specific, targeted instruction and practice are essential to success.
Nevertheless, for some reason, it’s an all too common approach for runners to strive for improvement by simply running more. In what other sport would we ever expect to get better without paying attention to technique? Yet, we meet runners, on a daily basis, both new and seasoned, who have simply not considered technique….until now!
For runners, focusing on run technique has huge potential to improve injury resiliency and performance, and there’s plenty of research to support it. In recent years, researchers have published evidence that gait training can:
1. Reduce rates of running related injury
In a study of healthy novice level runners, participants were split into a two-week gait training group and a control group (no gait training). One year later, the group that went through the training program had 62% fewer running related injuries than those who had not gone through gait training(1).
The cool thing about this study is that it supports the idea that gait training isn’t just for those who are currently battling injury. Completing just a few sessions focused on gait and technique has the potential to prevent injury from happening in the first place. Not injured? That doesn’t mean that you can’t benefit.
2. Lead to lasting change
We are frequently asked whether or not gait training can lead to long-term change. Sure you can mimic what you think gait should look like on a treadmill for a few minutes in the clinic, but will this translate to being able to run well in the home stretch of a tough run?
While it’s important to recognize that continued practice is always key (imagine if Sidney Crosby never practiced again just because he’s already pretty good), the answer is, yes, gait training can lead to long-term improvement regardless of your level of running. Running is a motor skill, so our understanding of long-term changes in running technique is based on studies of motor learning.
In one such study, runners completed four weeks of gait training. Afterwards, participants demonstrated improved running mechanics, as well as similar changes in movement strategies in a single leg squat despite not training the single leg squat specifically(2). This transference of a motor pattern between unique skills is a well-known phenomenon in the motor learning world. It suggests that the motor pattern no longer requires conscious effort and has been learned and retained. Simply put, yes, you can expect that the work that you put into gait training will lead to lasting change, even when you aren’t consciously thinking about it.
3. Improve running economy (i.e. help you go faster, longer)
There are a lot of factors that have been measured to try to identify what exactly we should be looking for to ensure that runners move efficiently (longer or faster without increasing the energy demands of the task at hand) as well as in a manner that will reduce injury risk. Here’s the good news: in most cases, running well to avoid injury and running well to run efficiently are the same thing!
As is typically the case in the research world, there is no absolute consensus on the one and only thing that we should be looking for. However, there is robust evidence suggesting that one key factor is peak breaking force, or the horizontal force pushing you opposite the direction that you’re travelling(3). This is a fancy way of saying that, if first contact with the ground occurs in a position where the shin is not in a vertical position, your risk of injury is likely greater than it would be if you landed with that shin in a vertical position, or with decreased braking force.
As a bonus, reducing peak braking force also allows you to run faster! If you’re slamming on the breaks with each step, of course you’re going to have to work harder than you would if all of the force that you created was driving you towards the finish line.
Gait training is great, but big picture is best
So gait training is the secret to crushing it on the run? Well, yes and no.
Safe to say that run technique and gait training have potential to vastly improve your injury resilience and overall performance. We also know that continued practice is important. That being said, it’s important to remember that gait training is just one piece of the puzzle. Strength training, mobility, recovery, nutrition, and the right training program are a few factors that can play into your success at reaching your goals and avoiding injury along the way.
- Chan, Z., Zhang, J., Au, I., An, W., Shum, G., Ng, G., & Cheung, R. (2017). Gait retraining lowers injury risk in novice distance runners: a randomized controlled trial. The American Journal of Sports Medicine, 5, 1–24.
- Napier, C., MacLean, C. L., Maurer, J., Taunton, J. E., & Hunt, M. A. (2018). Kinetic Risk Factors of Running-Related Injuries in Female Recreational Runners. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 0–2.
- Willy, R., Scholz, J., & Davis, I. (2012). Mirror gait retraining for the treatment of patellofemoral pain in female runners. Clin Biomech, 27, 1045–1051.