fbpx

What Is Your Running Gait, And Why It Matters

Last Updated:

When you go in to buy a pair of running shoes at your local specialty running store, the shoe fit expert will probably ask you if you’d like a running gait analysis.

He or she will then get you set up on the treadmill and will ask you to run for a minute or two at a comfortable pace. 

The shoe fit expert may observe you from different angles while simultaneously taking a video recording of you running.

Afterward, the video can be played back in slow motion, and the expert will point out aspects of your running gait that may need adjustments in order to optimize the stresses on your feet and legs.

Although most runners can probably relate to this abbreviated explanation of a basic running gait analysis and have experienced it themselves, many runners aren’t completely certain what running gait is and why running gait matters.

In this article, we will cover running gait 101, answering questions like what running gait is, why running gait matters, and what are the different types of running gaits.

We will cover:

  • What Is Running Gait?
  • What Are the Phases of the Running Gait Cycle?
  • Why Running Gait Matters

Let’s get started!

The phases of a running gait.

What Is Running Gait?

Running gait refers to your running stride or the cycle and motions that your feet and legs travel through when you run.

The primary components of your running gait are how and where on your feet you land during each stride, as well as the path in space your legs make as you run.

What Are the Phases of the Running Gait Cycle?

Both running and walking have a “gait cycle,” which is a repeating pattern of specific phases that describe the path or motion that the feet and legs make during one complete stride.

A stride is one full gait cycle, so it begins when the right foot lands and ends when the right foot lands again (the same can be said from the left foot landing to the left foot landing again).

Therefore, you make two steps for every one stride or every one complete gait cycle.

Walking and running each has its own unique gait cycle because these forms of locomotion are somewhat different.

Everyone also has their own unique gait. Like a fingerprint, your running gait will look somewhat unique to you, based on your individual biomechanics, even though it will involve a set of specific phases.

In other words, between any two runners, there will be some degree of variation in their running gait, but both runners will progress through the same phases of the gait cycle.

There are two primary phases of the running gait cycle: stance and swing.

Note that when one leg is in the stance phase, the other leg is in the swing phase.

The stance phase is when your foot is in contact with the ground, while the swing phase is when the leg is up in the air, non-weight bearing. 

The stance phase is further subdivided into phases called initial contact, mid-stance, and toe-off, while the swing phase has the float stage, which is unique to running over walking.

Let’s look at each of these phases in more detail:

A person in the stance phase.

Stance Phase

The stance phase begins when your foot first makes contact with the ground and ends as the foot leaves the ground. It is the weight-bearing phase of the gait cycle.

Initial Contact

Initial contact is when your foot first strikes the ground. 

In this way, initial contact is the part of the running gait cycle where your foot absorbs the peak impact and the stress, which then travels up the kinetic chain.

Many runners are heel strikers or rearfoot strikers, which means that the portion of the foot that makes contact with the ground first is the heel area.

Midfoot strikers land with the middle of the foot, around the area of the arch, touching down first.

Forefoot strikers land on the ball of their foot, closer to the toes rather than the heel.

During initial contact, your center of mass is behind your foot because your foot lands somewhat out in front of your body, depending on your stride length and running gait.

A person in the stance phase of running.

Midstance

Depending on where you land on your foot at initial contact, the arch then collapses to help absorb the forces and allow your foot to be a “mobile adapter” to conform to the ground.

This causes natural pronation of the foot, which means that your foot should roll inward about 15 degrees relative to the upright ankle just after you land.

Midstance is when the supporting foot is bearing your weight. Your body (and thus the center of mass) travels from its position behind your foot at initial contact to directly above your foot.

This means that your foot is pretty much directly under your body during midstance, supporting all of your weight.

Your knee should be slightly bent at midstance, helping to absorb the forces imposed by your body weight and gravity.

Because of the bend in the knee and the fact that you are weight-bearing rather than up in the air in the “float” phase, midstance is considered the lowest point of the running gait cycle when viewed from the side.

However, during midstance, the body is preparing for the highest point of the gait cycle, which is when the propulsive force is generated to launch your leg into the swing phase.

Towards the end of midstance, the foot moves from its pronated position into supination, which stiffens what was a “mobile adapter” to a “rigid lever.”

In other words, at initial contact, when you land on your foot, you want it to be somewhat floppy and flexible.

The arch compresses like a spring to attenuate the shock of landing, which gives you a flatter foot with lots of surface area to conform to the ground and dissipate forces.

Then, the arch recoils like a spring, which stiffens up the foot, getting it ready for push-off.

If you think about the effectiveness and efficiency of pushing off, you want a nice, firm, or stiff foot for push-off to maximize the length of the lever pressing off the ground.

If your foot were relaxed and malleable, still in its pronated position, you wouldn’t be able to get a strong push-off because the foot would be too collapsible and would absorb energy rather than transfer it into propulsive force.

A person in the toe-off phase of running.

Toe Off

Toe off is when the foot moves from the stance phase into the swing phase, which means it is the part of the running gait cycle where the weight-bearing foot launches into the air.

As the foot stiffens and prepares for toe off, the forefoot pronates. 

This gets the big toe in position for a strong push-off so that you’re pushing off from your strongest toe (and usually longest toe, which increases the lever length of your foot) rather than your weaker lesser toes.

Your body travels from being directly above the foot in midstance where your center of mass is at its lowest, to in front of your foot at toe off.

This puts your foot behind you at toe off, so that you can drive into the ground behind you by pressing back through your hip, eccentric contraction of the quad, and pull with the hamstring to propel the body forward.

Your hip, knee, and ankle all extend at toe off.

After toe off, the leg begins the swing phase.

A person in the swing phase of running.

Swing Phase

The swing phase is the portion of the running gait cycle where your leg is non-weight bearing up in the air.

It lasts from the moment the leg is airborne until just before it touches down again for initial contact.

After toe off, the forefoot dorsiflexes, which means your toes point up towards the sky and supinate. This helps draw your foot upward so that your foot clears the ground and you don’t trip.

Your knee moves from a position of extension at toe off (which enables you to forcefully drive the lengthened lever of your leg into the ground behind you for propulsion) to flexion.

Flexion, which refers to the bending of the joint, effectively shortens the limb. This helps ensure your foot will have optimal clearance over the ground as it swings forward.

A person in the swing phase of running.

Float Phase

Unique to the running gait relative to the walking gait is the float phase.

In the walking gait, one leg is always on the ground, meaning that the entire time one leg is in the stance phase, the other leg is in the swing phase.

These two phases are balanced in terms of the percentage of time they take up for the entire walking gait cycle.

In contrast, with a running gait, the swing phase is actually longer than the stance phase.

For most runners, the stance phase constitutes 40% of the time for one complete running gait cycle, while the swing phase takes up 60% of the time.

This means that there’s some overlap between the two legs wherein they are both in portions of the swing phase simultaneously.

This momentary period of overlap in the swing phase, during which neither foot is in contact with the ground, is known as the float phase or the flight phase.

Not only does the float or flight subphase differentiate the running gait from the walking gait, but it’s also been shown to be a crucial part of the running gait cycle in terms of improving running efficiency.

Studies suggest that competitive runners maximize this flight time, such that there is an 11% greater increase in flight time in well-trained runners compared with novice runners.

A person running on the road.

Arm Swing

Runners often forget to consider the importance of the arm swing during the running gait cycle. 

Your arms work in opposition to the legs, such that the left arm drives backward when the right leg swings forward, and the left arm pumps forward when the right leg pushes backward.

A similar reciprocal pattern happens between the right arm and the left leg.

The arm swing not only helps propel your body forward, but it also counterbalances the rotation of the hips and offsets the weight of the legs.

Why Running Gait Matters

So, why does running gait matter? Are there different types of running gaits?

Your running gait matters for two primary reasons: running gait issues can increase the risk of injury and compromise your efficiency and running economy.

Firstly, problems with your running gait can increase the risk of injuries because how and where you land on your feet and how your leg supports your body as you run affects the stresses and strains experienced by your bones, joints, connective tissues, and muscles.

For example, if you are overstriding, you will land on your rearfoot instead of your midfoot.

Heel striking is associated with a higher risk of injuries because the arch is not in a good position to compress and help absorb the impact stress. 

Moreover, overstriding places greater torque on your hips, knees, and ankles because your center of mass is too far behind your body.

If you recall back to your days in physics class, the torque going through a joint is a product of the force multiplied by the moment arm or the distance that force is applied from the joint. 

A person getting a running gait analysis.

When you overstride, your body weight is well behind the ankle and knee when you land. Therefore, the weight of your body plus gravity is being applied from a greater distance than if your center of mass was directly over your knee and feet. 

This increases the toque on your joints, which places you at an increased risk of injury.

Additionally, when you overstride, the body must decelerate more before moving on to the next stride. This reduces your running economy because you’re losing forward momentum.

Besides overstriding and heel striking, there are other various running gait abnormalities that can increase the risk of running injuries, especially when you consider that running is a repetitive motion and you take about 170-180 steps per minute every minute you run.

Common running gait issues that can increase the risk of injury include overpronation, excessive supination, heel striking, forefoot striking, knees collapsing inward at midstance, shuffling your feet, not swinging the arms enough or crossing the over the midline of the body, pushing off on the outside of the foot, slapping your feet down, hips dropping or collapsing, and more.

A person getting a running gait analysis.

In addition to increasing the propensity for overuse injuries, problems with your running gait can reduce your running economy and efficiency, which can compromise your performance and lead to premature fatigue.

For example, overstriding reduces your forward momentum, and excessive vertical oscillation (bouncing) wastes energy. 

Pushing off from your small toes rather than your big toes minimizes propulsion. 

Although running gait can certainly feel complicated when you’re reading about it and worrying about how you stack up, the good news is that you can typically get the help you need by getting a gait analysis. 

Most running shoe stores offer a free running gait analysis when you go in to try on shoes.

Not only will the fit expert be able to help identify issues with your running gait, but he or she will also be able to suggest the best type of running shoes to address your specific issues.

In addition to changing your footwear and considering orthotics, it is possible to modify your running gait through deliberate practice once you identify problems.

For more information on proper running form, check out our running form guide and 7 running form takeaways from Eliud Kipchoge to get you working on improving yours today!

A person getting a running gait analysis.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.