Want a humbling experience? Watch yourself run. In slow-motion. Using 3-D imagery. In front of a roomful of young Ph.D.s and graduate students.

Last week, I underwent a running gait analysis at the University of Virginia's Speed Clinic to get a better idea of whether or not I was running efficiently and how I could make improvements. The results were not pretty.

I am by no means a speedy runner. Like most runners, I would like to get faster. But also like most runners, my training is frequently interrupted by minor injuries that take me out of commission for anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of months.

Recent estimates suggest that as many as 79 percent of runners get injured every year. Why so many injuries in a sport that flaunts its simplicity? Running is simple — you generally just need a good pair of sneakers and you're ready to go. But because it is so repetitive, it's also easy to develop small habits or "inefficiencies" that over time can lead to injury.  

Runner's knee, Achilles tendonitis, plantar fasciitis, shin splints, and ITBS (or illiotibial band syndrome,) are some of the most common injuries suffered by runners each year. And I've had them all, sometimes in the same year. So when I read an article in a recent issue of Runner's World about running clinics that offer a comprehensive look at your running form, I knew it was something I wanted to try.  

The gait analysis is not cheap: UVA offers a 2-D gait evaluation for $150 or a 3-D analysis for $350, and that's about the going rate for these types of evaluations nationwide. But when I added up all of the money I have spent on massages, chiropractors, and physical therapy sessions as well as KT tape, compression socks, specialized running sneakers, and other athletic gear, it seemed like a drop in the proverbial bucket.  

To get started, I met with Max Prokopy, M. Ed., CSCS. He and his team placed markers at key points on my body so that they could not only assess my running form, but also the ground force resistance generated during my runs. In other words, they were looking at how my joints move when I run, and whether or not my running stride could lead to injury.

Then Prokopy performed some musculoskeletal tests on me to see how my mobility was affecting my stride. I did some lunges and one-legged squats, touched my toes, and tried to not to fall off the table while performing a one-legged bridge with my arms raised overhead (see the picture.)

Next came the hard part. Watching the video and trying not to squirm at the blatantly obvious 'inefficiencies' in my running stride. And you could have knocked me over with a feather from what I saw on that screen.

Let me just interject here that over the years, as I have chased injuries up and down the right side of my body, I have thought of a number of potential causes for my afflictions — the camber of the roads where I run, overdeveloped muscles on my "dominant" side, or even the possibility that one leg might be shorter than the other. I have performed numerous exercises to strengthen my hips, my calves, and my glutes in an effort to improve my running. But sooner or later, another injury sets in and I'm back to square one.

I never would have guessed that most of my injuries can be traced back to two factors — I run with a slight arch in my spine that forces my lower back to take on the role of propulsion (as you can imagine, the lower back is not designed to fulfill this role); and I do not have good dorsiflexion in my ankles (meaning that they cave inward rather than roll forward.)

The gait analysis included not only video from several angles of my running form, but also kinetic data that showed just how the impact of force was affecting my joints. So while I could have used the slo-mo feature on my iPhone to see my running form, I couldn't have seen the details I saw on that screen, nor could I have known the impact my body was absorbing with each foot fall.

Fortunately, there was some good news. The running gait analysis at UVA, like that performed at most centers, did not just point out my flaws, it gave me concrete methods to correct them. Prokopy worked with me for a good hour after the analysis to suggest exercises that I could use to release tension in my lower back, improve mobility in my ankles, and otherwise fine-tune my running form. I went home with a DVD that included the aforementioned humbling video as well as dozens of graphs that I can't even begin to understand (though they were explained to me very thoroughly at the time,) as well as demonstrations of the exercises prescribed to improve my form.

Prokopy also sent me a seven-page report later that evening with a wrap-up of my "inefficiencies" as well as a checklist of exercises that I should perform daily or semi-weekly.

Of course the real question here is ... does it work? Will these exercises and corrections make me a better runner? Will they bring me newfound speed — or at least keep me off the bench so that I can train more consistently?  

Only time will tell on that one. So I will be sure to check in with a progress report. In the meantime, I would love to hear from other runners who have tried a gait analysis. Let us know how it went.

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Photo: Megan Williams
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