Making positive strides

By Chris Baxter, The Observer August 16, 2013 11:42 am

Video gait analysis can help runners get more from their workouts, while causing less stress on joints 

I am a morning runner, and a cool-weather runner.

So what am I doing out here in the afternoon, in 90-degree heat?

Running, is the simple answer.

But this isn’t the mindless running that is my routine, the kind where my friends and I run only as fast as we’re able and still carry on a conversation.

This is a running clinic organized by Blake Marlia, DPT (doctor of physical therapy) at Baker Valley Physical Therapy. He was joined by Caleb McIlmoil, DPT, and Flint Stearns, OT (occupational therapist).

The goal is to help us run longer, faster and better by tweaking a few things — form, foot strike and stride rate.

Let me explain these, based on my own experience.

To obtain a baseline of our individual running style, Marlia did a video gait analysis — we ran on a treadmill while he took a video, which we then scrutinized for those three fancy-sounding words.

First, form: Turns out I run with a hunched stance and don’t use my arms efficiently. 

He had me pull my shoulders back, bringing my stance more upright (which also makes it easier to breathe). As for my arms, the elbows should swing back, then only as far forward as my body — a small, quick movement.

Next comes foot strike. I am a heel striker, which means I land on the heel of my shoes. This has gotten a lot of attention thanks to the barefoot and minimalist running movement  — turns out heel striking puts more force on your joints.

The better form is to land on your midfoot or forefoot, which keeps your foot beneath you rather than stretched out front. This, theoretically, reduces the pounding on your leg muscle and joints.

(To test this out, try running across grass — you automatically run more on your toes, not landing on your heel.)

However, changing to a forefoot strike requires a shorter stride, which brings us to stride rate.

My original stride rate — the number of steps I took in a minute — was 160. The magic number is 180, which is more efficient and helps achieve a forefoot strike.

Guess what? There’s an app for that!

Marlia found a smartphone app called “Best Metronome” that audibly gives you a cue for the pace — you simply match your footfalls to the beat.

OK, not so simple.

This takes concentration, although the idea is that after practice it becomes your natural stride rate.

After six clinic meetings, it still takes more concentration — brain power — than I’m used to expending on a run.

I’m improving slowly — I’ve run a certain way for quite a few years, and it’s hard to change habits.

Another aspect of the running clinic is strength — for a month, we’ve learned a dozen different exercises designed to target the gluteus medius.

In layman’s terms, that’s part of your butt — the gluteus medius muscle is on the outside, near the hip.

When this muscle is weak, a runner’s form suffers as other larger muscles take up the slack to maintain running.

This glute muscle is a tough one to target, but McIlmoil introduced us to many effective exercises that leave the muscle burning as you finish the reps.

I noticed a difference after four weeks — my right hip no longer aches after I run, and my knees aren’t so tender.

As for my stride, it may take awhile before I can maintain 180 without the metronome chiming away from my phone.

However, for the final meeting, we did another gait analysis to compare to the first.

The difference is obvious — my posture is much better and my stride is quicker, which means I keep my feet below me rather than far out front.

Success!

But there is one thing I won’t be changing: I still prefer my cool morning runs over sweltering afternoons.