Learning to Run More Naturally & Efficiently
by Dr. Phil Maffetone.
Many beginning runners remark about how much they enjoy the new experience.
They care little about the nuances regarding form, technique, or proper gait. As long
as they are moving, accumulating mileage over a sustained period of time, they feel
content and satisfied. But at the advanced and elite level of running, the concept of
gait takes on an entirely new dimension of complexity, constant questioning, and
evaluation by a coach or oneself.
But what is exactly meant by the term gait? In running, gait is typically defined as
moving posture the whole bodys forward progress, including the foot strike and
pelvic position, to arm swing, head and knee movement. Its not unusual for
coaches, kinesiologists and other biomechanics experts, and elite runners to dissect
each component of ones gait. From this assessment, each element of the gait thats
viewed as flawed is correctedthe runner is told to lift the knee to this position,
swing the arms that way, or hold the elbows this way.
Yet nothing is more natural than the biomechanics of human running. Or should be.
With every step a runner takes, the limbs, trunk, head and spine participate in
various combinations of movement, ranging from flexion, extension, and rotation, to
abduction and adduction, along with the feet, which pronate, supinate, invert and
evert. Only by understanding the normal ranges of motion can one detect abnormal
movements so as to help assess an injury or observe for the potential of future
More importantly, theres no ideal running form. While all humans have the same
basic running patternjust like other animalsyour gait is yours alone. In fact, its
easy to recognize your training partner from a distance, even before the face comes
into focus, because you know his or her unique running fingerprint.
Even looking at the best athletes in professional sports, theres one common
featureeveryones movements are slightly different. Each golfer follows the basic
swing, while at the same time each has a swing all his or her own; the same for
every high-jumper, baseball pitcher, tennis player, or marathoner.
That is, unless something interferes with movement.
When something causes the gait to go astray, two things happen. First, there is the
risk of getting injured because it meant something went wrong, and it will be reflected
in running form in a subtleor sometimes more obviousway. There might be
irregular movement in the hip joint causing the pelvis to tilt more to one side than the
other, more flexion of one knee than the other stressing the hamstring muscles, too
much rotation of the leg causing the foot to flair outward excessively, and erratic arm
movements. The most common reason for this is muscle imbalance, and it forces the
body to compensate by contracting certain muscles to keep the imbalance from
The second problem is that the bodys energy is being used inefficiently. A flawed
running form will raise the heart rate more than usual, making one fatigue quicker,
and resulting in a slower pace. Stretching can disturb the gait tooby making a
muscle longer with a loss of power. By stretching muscles before running, its very
possible to cause muscle imbalance.
Physical interference is most often the result of bad shoes or muscle imbalance,
sometimes both. Stretching can disturb the gait tooby making a muscle longer with
a loss of power. By stretching muscles before running, its very possible to cause
Another factor affecting is gait is poor postural habit. We sit in chairs too long or
slump at our desks. We stand with poor posture and even walk with an irregular
gaitall because somewhere along the way we allowed our bodies to get lazy. For
many, these bad habits carry over to running.
Key Differences Between Running and Walking
Walking is associated
with the foot first striking the ground with th e heel, whereas a running gait
involves landing farther forward on the foota mid foot strike in most cases with
more forefoot landing as running speed increases. Making contact with the ground
imparts impact forcesthe foot literally collides with the earth on each step. While
impact is often seen as a negative aspect of running, equating to trauma and injury,
a proper gait is potentially associated with better bone density and improved muscle
and tendon function, better circulation and other healthy benefits associated with
exercise. With proper gait, colliding with the ground is well compensated for
humans have evolved an effective gait mechanism.
Impact forces during walking are relatively minor. But heel-striking while running can
be a significant loss of energy, a common example of an improper gait producing
stress from impact. The overall mechanics of the foot, ankle and leg, and many body
areas above, are stressed with abnormal heel striking compared to the runner who
lands farther forward. Mid- or forefoot running is associated with a more optimal gait
thats usually not impact impaired. Lets consider these two gaits in more detail.
An important difference between walking and proper (mid- and forefoot) running is
how the foot muscles work, and, in particular, the energy used for propulsion. The
walking body acts more like an inverted pendulum, swinging along step-by-step,
literally vaulting over stiff legs with locked knees. Muscles use the bodys metabolic
energy created by conversion of carbohydrates and fat.
Things are quite different with running. This action is sometimes referred to as an
impulsive and springy gait, rebounding along on compliant legs and unlocked
knees. Instead of using all the bodys energy, the leg and foot have a built-in return
energy system for a significant amount of energy. This relies on the Achilles and
other tendons to recycle impact energy.
In running, the body has an effective muscle work-minimizing strategymany of the
foot muscles dont technically push you off the ground like during walking. Instead,
the muscles provide an isometric-type tension to stabilize the tendons and help in
the function of the unique mechanism that takes impact energy, sometimes referred
to as elastic energy associated with gravity and impact, and uses it for propelling
the body forward.
The large springy Achilles tendon on the back of the heel that runs up the leg and
attaches into the large calf muscles (the gastrocnemius and soleus) plays a key role
in recycling energy for propulsion. This tendon must function with sufficient tension to
help in the return energy process, and the muscles it attaches to, also important
postural supports, require a certain level of tautness, even at rest. (Trying to loosen
these muscles and tendons through stretching, aggressive massage or other therapy
may be counter-productive, impairing the natural springy gait. Excessive tightness of
the Achilles certainly can induce poor function as wellthink balance.)
Those with shorter, more compact Achilles tendons, unlike taller runners who also
have longer heel bones attached to the Achilles, generally have a more efficient
spring mechanismone reason why shorter runners typically can run faster,
especially in sprinting, although there are exceptions. Usain Bolts height advantage,
for example, works against him in the start, but then he would later cover more
ground using fewer strides than his competitors.
Heres how the bodys natural gait uses recycled energy for propulsion. As a runners
foot hits the ground, impact energy is stored in the muscles and tendons, and 95
percent of this energy is then used to spring the body forward like a pogo stick. This
mechanism provides about 50 percent of the leg and foot energy for propulsion (the
other 50 percent comes from muscle contraction). If this process isnt working well,
such as if you land on your heels, are wearing rigid, over-supported shoes, or have
muscle imbalance, the impact energy is dissipated or lost, and you must make up for
the problem by contracting more muscles for propulsion which requires the use of
more energy. Not only is this mechanically inefficient but it will slow you down, due to
the higher cost of energy. This can be further compounded if you burn less fat for
energy, thereby relying more on sugar thats associated with the more rapid onset of
fatigue. And, the impact energy thats not recycled often places a strain on muscles
and tendons (and ultimately, ligaments and bones), and can contribute to an injury.
In addition, movements above the ankle, especially in the knees, hips and low back
can helpor hurtthe natural spring-ahead mechanism. Too much motion in
these joints can reduce the bodys ability to recycle impact energy. By running more
uprightyou should be running tallrather than adopting a lazy, slumped-over
position, youll minimize knee, hip and low back movements, and thus helping to
utilize the foots spring mechanism. This involves using muscles similar to when you
have to stand up straightthey include the abdominals, gluteus maximus, and even
the neck flexors that prevent the head from tilting back.
Other movements are
different between walking and running. Most notably in the knee, which is locked
during a walking gait but not while running. The slightly flexed knee is more active
during running, and requires much more effort by muscles to support the joint while
the foot is on the ground. This is a key reason why many runners with improper gait
have knee injuries.
Those who run slowly often wonder if its better to sometimes just walk fast as the
pace can be the same. This is especially true on hills. Deciding on which option is
best is the job of the brain that will naturally tend to make the right decision about
making the transition from walking to running.
The energy cost of walking and running not only varies with speed, but type of
ground surface and other environmental factors such as temperature, humidity and
wind. But when the gait is irregular, both walking and running share a common
feature: both movements will cost more in energy. The worse or more inefficient the
gait, the greater will be the energy expenditure.
What is the Best Running Gait?
Over the years, I was often asked about the best way to run. Faster leg turnover?
Lean forward with the body? Keep your arms by your side? Push off with your feet?
I wish there was a simple answer. But theres not. What is best to tell a runner,
however, is the notion that if your feet hit the ground properly, the rest of the body
tends to follow, resulting in your natural gait. While this is the most important place to
start improving your gaitand if theres a problem heres the one to fix first. But this
is easier done than said. Most running shoes interfere with the feet doing their job,
and this often causes the whole body to have dysfunction, inducing stress into
muscles, bones and joints. By wearing the wrong shoes youll never find your natural
A specific problem thats most common is that until recently the majority of over-built
running shoes caused you to land on your heel instead of further forward on your
foot. This is because they were designed with large, over-supported heels and were
marketed as providing as a smoother, more cushioned ride. But over time, the
repetitive action of landing on the heel causes foot dysfunction as well the potential
for ankle, knee, and hip injury. Now your bodys foundation is cracking at the most
The arches in your feet, supported by muscles, and many tendons, especially the
large Achilles, work in such a way that when unimpeded, their built-in spring-like
action makes running a perfectly natural activity. Not only can your feet take the
pounding force with each step without damage, but it takes that energyfrom the
gravitation forceand recycles it back to the feet to spring forward instead of falling
back. But by wearing shoes with built-up heels, you are virtually falling backwards
with each step.
Try running barefoot even for a few yards to feel the difference. You cant land on
your heel. Being barefoot will change all that. It will allow you to run free, natural and
efficient. Generally, by running barefoot, youll tend not to slump. It will be easier to
keep an upright posture. This is because youll land on your mid-to forefoot, not your
heel. And with each step your foot will spring your body up and forward.
This natural gait will help you sense your feet springing
off the ground, almost as if they have more energy. In fact, they do. Thats the
energy return that occurs naturally in a healthy stride. Focus on the feet springing off
the ground. When you feel it, your body will actually be moving more quickly. If
youre wearing a heart monitor, youll see that your pace can be faster without a rise
in heart rate. (I have witnessed on many occasions, a difference ranging between 10
or 12 beatswith higher rates associated with an improper running gait.)
Need more help? Think of running on hot coalsif you were going to do that, your
feet need to stay off the red-hot coals as much as possible. So from the instant each
foot touches the ground, quickly pick it up. Ive used this hot coal technique to help
runners be more efficient with their gait. The longer your foot stays on the ground,
the more energy you waste, the more vulnerable you are to injury, and the less likely
you will use that energy for better running. Instead, think about your feet coming off
the ground after each step. All while youre relaxed. Look at photos of the great
runners; they are actually airborne much of the time because they spend much less
time with each foot on the ground.
In the unlikely event that your body is being particularly stubborn and you cant relate
to what Ive just explained, it could be that your feet are so used to working
improperly that they need more time to learn natural movements. They may require
additional re-training, or rehabilitation. If this is the case, keep forging ahead with
barefoot activity, slowly increasing the time spent unshod. This process is particularly
difficult and challenging for those who have already developed poor running habits or
for those with a long history of wearing improper shoes.
Running short distances barefoot will re-train your bodys natural gait
Even if youre doing all the right thingsperforming your brief barefoot jog, using the
correct flat-sole shoes during the rest of your workout and throughout the day
muscle imbalance can interfere with a more efficient gait. One of the most common
problems people develop in their feet is muscle imbalance. This can become a
vicious cycleyou cant walk or jog without your shoes because your muscle
imbalance prevents proper support, but the shoes continue maintaining muscle
But for some people with muscle imbalance, going without shoes often doesnt feel
right, or in some cases its painful. In both cases, the shoes have literally become a
crutchyoure addicted to the artificial support. Its like being in a wheelchair all
daygetting up after 10 hours will make you feel stiff and achybeing in the
wheelchair for months will render you unable to even walk!
By gradually weaning yourself off over-supported shoesand this means going
barefoot whenever you can, or when its convenientyou can often fix the muscle
imbalance in your feet by stimulating them in such a way as to enlist proper function
of all the muscles, ligaments, tendons, and even the skin.
This can take time for some people. It might first be necessary to wear slightly
thinner-soled shoes, and gradually work down to those that are half or more in
thickness from your usually shoed. Only then, as your feet start to work and feel
better will barefoot walking finally achieve that wonderful natural sensation that was
originally hardwired into your body as a youth. Then, only after a couple of weeks of
just walking more naturally, you will be able to jog barefoot.
In stubborn cases, or to speed the process, it may be necessary to find a healthcare
professional who can determine which muscles are not functioning correctly, and fix
You dont automatically have to become a barefoot runner. For those who want to
progress from walking to running, some might choose to run barefoot for the whole
workout. But for others, just spending time at home or work without shoes is the start
of a great, natural therapy. Then add a walk on the grass barefoot, even for 10
minutes a day. The more time you spend going barefoot, the more your feet will work
better in a proper shoe. Jogging or running short distances barefoot to re-train your
bodys natural gait is the quickest, most powerful, and most effective way to
accomplish this task. It helps if you have a great location for barefoot runninga
grassy park, a hard-sand beach, or a track.
By taking off your shoes and jogging or running barefooteven for 50 or 100 yards,
youll eliminate interference between your feet and ground, and quickly have better
form. Among other things, this will improve your foot strikefrom heel striking to
landing more forward. You will also produce better pelvic movement and arm swing.
And it allows your head to better control eye and body coordination (a very complex
but important part of running efficiency). But because of bad habits, some people
need more than just taking off their shoesthis behavior is unfortunately, and deeply
ingrained into the processes of the brain, nervous system and muscles. Perhaps this
programming first began at an early age in gym class, at summer camp, or from
watching a video, reading a running magazine, or from a well-meaning coach.
Once your gait is more natural, shoes will interfere much less. In fact, as your feet
function better youll feel more sensitive to shoes that are not a perfect matchyoull
focus on finding the ones that fit just right on each foot, are flat and dont disturb your
normal foot mechanics. Once your feet are happy, you have the best chance of
finding your ideal running form.
This is the first part of a two-part series on Gait, and much of the content is
excerpted from Dr. Phil Maffetones Big Book on Health and Fitness. Maffetones
most recent book is The Healthy Golfer.