It’s a funny paradox that the longer I run trails, the more I realize how important it is to occasionally not run trails. Why? The flat, smooth, and firm surfaces of civilization provide a safe, consistent, and self-reflective way to check in on our running mechanics. When the surfaces upon which we run are uniform, we can see how we look and how our body moves through space and across the ground. When treating and coaching runners, I recommend that they occasionally run in front of and beside a mirror. A mirror in front of and beside a treadmill is an easy and potent way to self-assess stride efficiency as we can watch how our body moves in real time.
Even if you aren’t a biomechanics expert, most runners implicitly know what a good running stride looks like. And even if we all can’t look like Jim Walmsley, we each have our own best version of a running stride. Mirror running provides an easy way to keep consistent with that best version of ourselves. We use mirrors similarly in our daily life to see if our perception of our appearance matches reality! In the rest of this article, we discuss why it’s important to occasionally assess our own stride and how exactly to do it.
Efficiency First: How We Run is the Most Important Factor in How We Feel
Efficiency matters. How we move our body while running plays the biggest role in how we feel, how fast we run, and our propensity for injury. Energy can either be used to propel us forward or wasted through inefficient motion. Peak efficiency makes for fast running with minimal stress. Inefficient running can still be pretty fast and get us pretty far, but it often hurts more and takes longer to recover from.
Longtime readers know that most of my 90-plus articles on iRunFar eventually lead back to this maxim: Efficiency first! As such, it’s important to have a compelling idea of what your most efficient stride looks like. And it’s just as important to periodically check in to see if you’re, literally, putting your best foot forward!
Running Strides are Subject to Change, Especially on the Trail
Most runners acknowledge that the running stride is a dynamic athletic movement that is subject to change. Fatigue can create short-term changes. Range-of-motion loss and strength decline through time can cause more insidious, longer-term degradations in stride efficiency.
For road runners, maintaining stride consistency is often easier since they usually run mostly flat, smooth surfaces at consistent (however variable, from easy to race-pace) speeds. Unless they run very long or hard workouts and races, they seldom incur significant soreness and stiffness to the level that alters stride mechanics.
For many trail runners–particularly mountain runners and ultrarunners–extreme forces are commonplace. Extreme vertical gain and loss, and moderate-to-high intensity over ultra distances can cause both short- and long-term changes in how we run. In the short-term, extreme demands can turn a strong stride into a shuffle and a person with good posture into a ‘leaner.’ In the longer term, the heavy pounding of vertical and distance can acutely decrease range of motion to key parts of our moving system (trunk, hips, and ankles, to name a few) that–unless we restore it–changes the nature of how we run.
These gradual stride changes are often imperceptible. This is often due to subtle changes not only in our orthopedic system but also in our motor plan, or the part of the brain that keeps track of what running feels like. I envision that somewhere inside our brain there is a computer file called ‘Running.xls.’ It is a living, breathing program that, too, is subject to change. We might begin a race using ‘Running.xls,’ but mid-race, while under the duress of vertical, intensity, and duration, we switch to ‘Slow, Shuffle Running.xls.’ And upon completion of that run, the brain inadvertently clicks ‘Save As’ so that ‘Slow, Shuffle Running.xls’ overwrites ‘Running.xls!’
This is what we call a deficit of proprioception, or the internal feeling of how our body is positioned and moves in space. Proprioceptive deficits occur when our brain’s perception of position and motion is different from how we actually move. That is, abnormal feels like and becomes the new normal. Through this mechanism, we often fail to perceive these slight changes until, seemingly out of nowhere, we can’t run as fast and we don’t feel as good as we used to. Thus, paradoxically, it’s more important for trail runners to check in with stride efficiency so that we can stay in touch with our efficient home base!
Running Stride Self-Assessment How-To
Stride self-assessment doesn’t take much. A runner can:
- Watch themselves run in a window reflection.
- Have a friend film their stride from the front/rear and side.
- Hop on a treadmill with a mirror in front and the side.
The first option is the easiest, but running past those storefront windows provides only a quick view and can be dangerous if the street is busy. The second option might be easier, but it has disadvantages. Most runners won’t inconvenience a friend to stop a run and film. Moreover, this film-and-watch method provides post-run feedback only. The last option takes more resources but provides key feedback in real time. Runners can see what they’re doing, make changes, and see the results of their changes all while remaining in motion.
The mirror approach is easier than it seems. If you don’t own a treadmill, most health clubs have them. And if you don’t own a large mirror, a small closet mirror is portable and easy to set up against a wall or rack in front of the treadmill. Voila, you have gait analysis! Once on the treadmill, here is a brief checklist of factors to look at:
When in doubt, zoom out to the bigger picture and ask yourself, “Does my stride look good and look fast?” Simply knowing what good looks like–and your best version of that–is good enough to compare against what you see in the mirror!
Case Study: Stride Awareness Brings Rapid Improvement in Ankle Pain
I have been struggling with bilateral ankle pain for over two years which has been impervious to myriad treatments. Despite my knowledge and the help of numerous other medical professionals (fellow physical therapists and other manual therapists), nothing helped. Until recently when I watched myself run.
A few weeks ago, on yet another painful run, I thought, Maybe I’m not landing on my feet the way I think I am! My gym has a row of treadmills directly in front of a wall of mirrors, and the corner treadmill has a side mirror! Jackpot!
Watching the mirror in front of me, it didn’t take long to realize that I was running extremely narrow. Both feet were crossing over midline and failing to land whole-footed (not engaging the medial arch). It didn’t feel like I was foot striking like a drunken sailor, but there it was. Abnormal running had come to feel normal for me. Adjusting my stride–for both width and whole-foot engagement–felt quite awkward at first. But in about a week of easy treadmill runs, a couple interesting things occurred:
- My ankles felt a lot better.
- My ankle mobility doubled within a few runs.
- My hip strength–because of improved stance stability–improved.
Rapid changes occurred once I started doing the right thing again. Since then, I’ve still been running on mostly flat and smooth surfaces to keep practicing and maintaining my improved foot strike. Trail running takes a lot more focus to run that way on undulating, uneven surfaces, so I can only run for short bouts before I revert to old habits.
The take-home? One minute of mirror observation achieved what over two years, a half-dozen really smart people, and a lot of effort could not. It helped me discover a path to pain-free, faster, and stronger running! Give it a try yourself. Just a single run a week or less might be all it takes to stay in touch with your most efficient stride!
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- Do you self-assess your running stride? If so, how actually do you do it and what do you look for?
- Do you think your running stride has specific deficits you could work on?
- Have you noticed that your stride has changed through time? What changes do you see?