How to identify problems with your gait, and ways to improve your running technique
Ambulation (walking or running) is more complicated than it looks.
Many body systems have to work together to achieve it, and yet for the able-bodied it’s a basic part of their day-to-day life. For many people, their ‘gait’ is just something that happens, and therefore often goes unexamined.
Understandably so. It would be natural to think, “I’ve been walking all my life; if there were something seriously wrong with the way I moved, surely I’d have noticed by now.”
And this is true, to some extent. A person’s ‘gait’, or style of walking, often varies significantly between people. There are many different types of gait, and the spectrum of what is considered a ‘normal’ gait is very broad.
What factors determine my gait?
Your gait is primarily defined by your anatomy: the shape and orientation of your feet and legs, the natural extensibility of your ligaments, and other features. Wider physiological factors, such as how your muscles interact with each other, also contribute to your personal ‘gait quality’. Additionally, your gait can be influenced by your personality, your age, and even how you’re feeling that day. That said, it’s not largely defined by these factors.
You can identify characteristics of your gait, and learn more about how you move, via a process called ‘gait analysis’.
What is gait analysis?
For anyone looking to return to walking pursuits after time away, increase their exercise or achieve a particular competition goal, gait analysis can be a very useful tool. On the other hand, if you don’t experience pain while walking and aren’t an athlete looking to optimise, gait analysis has more limited use. We’ll speak in more detail about the caveats of gait analysis further on
Examination by a clinician such as a physiotherapist, podiatrist or orthotist will determine whether gait analysis would be a useful adjunct in diagnosing health complaints, and will usually be followed up by treatment options or management plans — based on the analysis and the preferred approach of the patient. This can range from general self-management advice, to specific strengthening regimes, advice on types of footwear and even specific orthotics (in-soles) that help or assist the body’s biomechanics.
Usually conducted on a treadmill or pressure plate, your clinician will ask you to walk or run for a variable period. Since history-taking and clinical examination may have come before gait analysis, the practitioner will likely know what they’re looking for already. They may be able to identify any issues by sight, or they might use a camera or other assistive tracking technology.
As you run, the clinician will note the characteristicsof your gait, looking for any asymmetries. For instance, if you have an asymmetrical leg length or a very high natural foot arch, your joints on one side might experience more stresses, potentially leading you to feel pain in the affected joints or bones. On the other hand, if you’re spending more time on one foot, you might be doing so to compensate for pain or weakness in the other. Compensation can itself lead to excess strain in those areas.
In short, asymmetries could either be the cause of an issue, or the result of an associated compensation.
There are many possible examples of asymmetry in someone’s gait, but it’s important to say that they aren’t always a problem. Simply put: if it isn’t causing you pain or dysfunction during day-to-day use, then it generally isn’t a concern. Adaptive orthotics, for example, are not necessarily prescribed for someone who is managing perfectly well with their ‘flat feet’ or low arches. This is an example of a foot type which could be described as a ‘variation of normal’.
So, is gait analysis for me?
Gait analysis is relevant in the health-care setting where you’re looking for help with pain, or some functional problem in daily life. Anything beyond this is generally only relevant for athletes looking to optimise performance and avoid possible overload issues in the future.
Are you returning to running or walking pursuits and experiencing discomfort? Have you got pain in your foot or leg associated with when you walk or run?
If the answer to the above is ‘yes’ then you should consider gait analysis. To enquire about gait analysis, or for an initial consultation to assess your treatment needs, get in touch.
This article does not constitute medical advice; we would always recommend calling 111 or visiting the NHS 111 website if you have any specific concerns about your health. In the case of an emergency, call 999.
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