Gait analysis tends to be something associated to runners and is often overlooked in the assessment and screening of athletes in other sports disciplines.
For athletes like soccer players, it might be intuitive to look at gait, because the sport involves a lot of running. But we seldom see gait assessed on many other sports, like football, baseball or volleyball.
Gait is all about energy absorption and release. If an athlete is not using gait mechanics in an energy-efficient manner, is it reasonable to think that this same athlete is running, cutting, jumping and landing efficiently? Because all of these important components of sport are essentially derived from gait mechanics.
Needless to say that in any sport, optimizing performance is a top priority.
What if gait is actually a foundation for performance?
Here is what there is to know about gait that is foundational in helping athletes achieve the most out of their performance.
Enjoyed this video? Make sure you subscribe to our YouTube channel!
GAIT & ENERGY
What the study of gait teaches us is that energy starts from the ground and moves up.
Gait is the foundation for both the absorption and the release of energy. As the foot hits the ground, impact forces (or load) are absorbed moving into internal rotation up the kinetic chain:
Subtalar joint eversion – Ankle dorsiflexion – Tibial internal rotation – Femoral internal rotation
Image borrowed from: https://www.andreirosu.org/
This creates potential energy for dynamic movement. This potential energy is released as elastic energy by taking advantage of the elasticity and recoil of connective tissues. Energy is released (or unload) moving into external rotation up the kinetic chain:
Subtalar joint Inversion – Ankle plantarflexion – Tibial external rotation – Femoral external rotation
Image borrowed from https://www.footbionics.com/
Repetitive movements like walking and running are movements that utilize stored elastic energy. They take advantage of the potential energy created by the recoil and elasticity of connective tissue. This is what makes gait energy efficient, allowing us to walk/run for extended periods of time.
Imagine running on your toes or on your heels only? Stand up and try this now and see what it feels like moving up the kinetic chain. Is it a smooth absorption and redistribution of energy or does it feel quite stiff and jarring?
As you can see (or feel), efficient gait requires the transfer of energy from the feet to the kinetic chain, and there are important capacities involved in tapping into this foundation for performance.
PERCEPTION VIA THE FOOT
You have heard me talk about the importance of the foot many times before, and if you have not read Foot Stability is the Foundation for All Your Lifts, I strongly recommend it.
In gait, impact forces are perceived via vibration perception of the plantar foot
This perception piece is of utmost importance because impact forces enter the body faster than the muscles can contract.
This means that we cannot only react to impact, we must pre-activate or anticipate impact. While this involves the entire lower extremity, which we will get to later, it starts with the foot.
The cutaneous receptors of the foot are sensitive to vibration, texture, touch, and pressure. By ensuring that the foot’s peripheral nerves receive proper stimulation and by improving its ability to receive this information, we increase the sensitivity of the foot.
Increased foot stimulation increases the sensitivity of the foot, which means that simply spending some time barefoot can help. There are many other ways to stimulate the plantar foot, such as rolling with a textured ball, or using textured mats and insoles such as those proposed by Naboso founder Dr. Emily Splichal. FYI, you can get 10% off by using code REHABU10
Injuries, soft-tissue and fascial limitations, articular limitations – these are all issues that can perturb the capacity to absorb impact forces to create potential energy for dynamic movement.
If you have ever assessed walking or running gait, you may have noticed a “wonky” side, where movement is less flowy, more jerky and rigid. In running, you might see a halting motion instead of a smooth pulling forward. Often, this will match with a joint injury, muscle strain, pain or other injury on the same side.
For efficient gait, the lower extremity must be able to tolerate and evenly distribute load, and this ability can be impacted by muscular or articular restrictions.
Previous injury the lower extremity, because it can lead to an antalgic gait, or painful limp, can also perturb this load distribution.
Limb load tolerance exercises are a great way to restore load distribution capacity for the lower extremity and can be done in various positions:
Exercise 1 – With the toes and metatarsal heads in contact with the wall and the heel hovering, perform a slight posterior pelvic tilt and flex the other hip. Hold the single-leg position for 60 seconds or as close to 60 seconds as possible.
Exercise 2 – With the toes and top of the metatarsal heads on contact with the foam roller, perform a slight posterior pelvic tilt and flex the other hip. Hold the single-leg position for 60 seconds or as close to 60 seconds as possible.
Once the lower extremity is able to tolerate, absorb and distribute load, it also needs to utilize this as potential energy for dynamic movement.
Gait is a foundation of performance because sports are all about being efficient in utilizing the elasticity and recoil of connective tissues as well as the isometric, concentric and eccentric actions of muscles.
This is why plyometrics are so often employed in training for sports. Interactions between these elastic and contractile elements essentially make up the Stretch-Shortening Cycle (SSC), classically defined as a pattern of muscle activation that utilizes an eccentric-concentric sequence, where the muscle is actively lengthened and then shortened. As an example, think of the countermovement action typically observed before jumping.
During SSC movements, the contractile elements act as a force generator, and this force is potentiated by the elastic elements that re-distribute or release stored energy. The efficiency of SSC mechanics is important for energy conservation and enhanced propulsive forces. It also results in a reduction of the metabolic cost of movement.
Plyometrics revolve around 2 basic skills: landing and jumping. Focusing on landing helps improve timing,
which is important in creating optimal stiffness and pre-activity of muscles prior to contact
Creating appropriate stiffness is required to “stick” a landing. It means once we absorb the eccentric force of gravity, we can accept, control and absorb that eccentric force.
Perhaps the most useful drills for developing this are landing exercises and their variations:
MAKE SURE TO WATCH THE MAIN VIDEO OF THIS ARTICLE TO SEE MORE EXERCISES
BUILDING ON THE FUNDAMENTALS
You might be surprised to know that you don’t need to be a gait “expert” to consider and include the fundamentals of gait in your interventions. Remember, what we know about gait tells us several important things:
1-The foot is sensitive to vibration, texture, touch, and pressure. Increased foot stimulation increases the sensitivity of the foot, improving its capacity to perceive ground impact forces via vibration. A Mobilization sequence should involve stimulating the plantar aspect of the foot.
2-The lower extremity needs to tolerate and distribute load as a whole. Injuries, soft-tissue, fascial and articular limitations can perturb the capacity to absorb impact forces to create potential energy for dynamic movement. An Activation sequence should include limb tolerance exercises.
3-Pre-activity of muscles prior to contact and the ability to create appropriate stiffness is an important to optimize potential energy for dynamic movement. Working on landing mechanics helps improve timing and stiffness of the lower extremity. An Integration sequence should include landing drills.
Outside of gait analysis equipment and technology, we can utilize what we know fundamentally about gait to restore the important capacities of perception, absorption and transfer of energy in the lower extremity.
In turn, this sets the stage for plyometric and explosive training for improved sports performance, something we will be discussing in another article!