Training for a race? You've sought out the right shoes, the right socks; you're following a training plan; you've got all the right gear; you're probably carb-loading before long runs and generally minding the fuel you're putting in your body.
Have you considered getting your gait analyzed?
Gait analysis is "...the systematic study of human (running and) walking, using the eye and brain of experienced observers, augmented by instrumentation for measuring body movements and body mechanics and the activity of the muscles" (Michael W. Whittle, Gait Analysis). Modern equipment like the Zebris systems take this instrumentation to the next level, incorporating treadmills with force sensors and high-speed cameras to capture details invisible to the naked eye.
Enter: The Average Joe
I'd always wanted to get my gait analyzed, but it seemed like something reserved for competitive, elite runners. "I'm just a normal running joe", I'd say to myself, reasoning this level of assessment was excessive for someone on my level. I also assumed it was expensive.
"We get a lot of different kinds of runners at different levels", says Halima Thorsen, MPT, the running guru and Physical Therapist at California Pacific Medical Center's Running Clinic. "Some people are just starting out, whereas other runners that come in have been running for a while and want to work on some issues."
Halima, an ex-professional runner, is a warm, affable personality with profound knowledge of running and exercise physiology acquired in the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Master of Physical Therapy program as well through as miles and miles of running. She knows her stuff, and is a riot to talk to.
"We like getting new runners in; we can help them before they develop really bad habits."
Gait analysis costs about the same as a good pair of running shoes, but the benefits will likely long outlast all the gear, gels, Advil and ACE bandages you'll ever purchase. Identifying weaknesses and issues—and incorporating corrective training—will save you from the bigger bills and heartache an injury can incur, and the value will serve you through your running life.
Under the Microscope
I made an appointment at the California Pacific Medical Center's Running Clinic and showed up ready to run. The crew had me warm up on a normal treadmill, then video taped me running from a series of different angles. I then transfered to the Zebris treadmill that records the force of each foot plant on the treadmill.
I then met with Halima, who ran me through a series of strength and range of motion tests. Since the CPMC Running Clinic is through a medical facility and is conducted by trained and certified Physical Therapists, I felt very confident I was in good hands.
"We are experts in human motion", Halima told me. "You can get assessed by a personal trainer who only works with fit subjects, but they don't know all we know. We know and are trained to understand correct movement, but we are acutely aware of problematic movement, too."
I am by-and-large a healthy runner with no nagging injuries. I am of the (super-) clydesdale class, which poses its own problems for joints, but luckily I've never had any serious problems. I have had the occasional nagging hip issue, as well as periodic bouts of shin splints, but I assumed this was par for the running course.
After a series of movement and resistance tests, Halima informed that I had very weak hips—particularly my right hip, the problem one. She had me do single-leg squats as well as lunges, showing me how inward movement on my squatting leg indicated weakness in the hip. My range of motion was also very limited in my hips (again, particularly in the right one).
We then watched the video of me running, slowing down to frame-by-frame so Halima could show me what was going on. The key elements were the asymmetrical drop in my knees as I took a stride, the lack of basic "spring" in my landing and step-off, pronation differences between my feet, and the lack of a clean upside-down "V" when watching my stride from the profile view. All these issues can be attributed to lack of strength and stability in my hips.
We then looked at the images produced from the force sensor plate in the Zebris treadmill. Clearly I am pressing too hard on the ball of my right foot, which Halima said "will be trouble for you down the road if you don't fix this. So long sesamoid bones!"
More subtly, I am not pronating correctly on my left foot, where pressure should travel through the foot and "exit" through my big toe on step-off. Instead, I am riding heavily on the outside of my foot, which will lead directly stress fractures—do not pass Go, do not collect $200. Both my heavy right-foot landing and my left-foot pronation issues are (you guessed it) attributable to weak hips.
Halima sent me home with 4 simple Active Range of Motion exercises to strengthen my hips, and a recommendation to limit my weekly milage and cross-train with swimming (breaststroke with frog kicks, in particular) until things improved. I made an appointment for the one month follow-up and got to work.
The Results (So Far)
Life sometimes has a way of limiting my weekly mileage for me, and admittedly I didn't run a whole lot in the week-and-a-half following my gait assessment. I did, however, do the prescribed exercises daily. I was shocked on how difficult these simple movements were at first, but was pleased by my rapid progress. In days I felt both stronger and more flexible, and I was looking forward to testing it out on the road.
My first run was incredibly eye-opening: the feeling of increased stability and—for lack of a better term—stride "bounce" defies explanation. I truly didn't expect this big an improvement in such a short amount of time, and had never felt quite this good on a run. Ever. It really felt like everything was working how it was supposed to, and I felt very sturdy and solid in my hips and core.
The usual post-run fatigue in my lower-legs was completely absent, and my quads, hamstrings and calves felt worked without feeling "sore".
After 3 weeks of very solid, satisfying runs I went back to CPMC for my follow-up appointment. Again I ran on the treadmill and was videotaped from different angles, and then transfered over to the pressure-sensitive Zebris treadmill. Halima met with me to review the data gathered.
Amazingly, there was marked improvement in all of my weak points; my knee-drop was much better, as was the upside-down "V" shape formed by back leg in mid-stride, as viewed from the profile. The pressure imagery also showed an improvement in my pronation and transfer of impact through my foot and out my big toe. With continued strengthening of my hips—and maybe a slight tweak to my footwear—I could have a very solid, workable gait that will serve me well.
It suffices to say that my experience at the CPMC Running Clinic has completely sold me on the value of running analysis. I left wondering why people don't make as big a deal out of gait analysis as they do shoe selection. It stands to reason that with improved mechanics, you'll get a lot more mileage out of your body than with bad mechanics and good shoes.
Sure, the economy sucks right now, but in the grand scheme of things the return you'll get for the investment in these sessions is worth it—even for average joe runners like me. You don't have to be a top-tier runner to get a lot of valuable input from a gait analysis session. I'm grateful to Halima and her crew for setting me in the right direction.
Have you had your gait analyzed? Let's hear about it! Drop a note in the comments on when and where, and how it went!
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