Why gait analysis doesn’t work (future of the shoe industry)

Why gait analysis doesn’t work (future of the shoe industry)

Today, I am going to get up on my soap-box and talk about gait analysis. Most of you know it because you would have tried it in a running store, administered by a well-meaning shop representative who would then match the results to a pair of shoes presumably perfect for you that will help keep you injury free. Instead of my explaining what gait analysis claims to do, let me quote ASICS:

Gait analysis provides runners with essential information about their running style. This is important however long they have been running, as only through knowing their running style will they be able to select the right shoes. The right running shoes are important as they can maximise both running performance and potential, as well as minimising the risk of injury, such as painful shins and joints.

The major focus of gait analysis is to measure the degree of pronation. Pronation is the natural inward roll of the foot as the outside part of the heel strikes the ground. This roll acts as a shock absorber for the leg and body,

Video gait analysis is simple. It involves running for a few minutes on a treadmill while a video is made of the runner’s feet. -ASICS, Foot mapping and gait analysis

Gait analysis rests on a number of false assumptions and an incomplete methodology. The first assumption being that your foot strike is somehow a natural unchangeable phenomenon that can be fixed by applying the correct shoe. This assumption is wrong: foot strike is a result of the hierarchy of movement – posture, rhythm and relaxation, or in other words – your technique. There’s nothing inherent, genetic or unchangeable about it. Can shoes fix it? A shoe can adapt to whatever striking pattern you see on the gait analysis “at that moment” but here’s the problem: most gait analysis is performed in shoes! Since it is becoming common knowledge again that shoes fundamentally change the foot-strike, because they alter your posture and your body’s ability to react to the ground, analysing someone in a pair of shoes cannot tell you “how they run”. It can only tell you “how they run in that specific pair of shoes.”

Gait analysis does not measure anything “natural”

This assumptions also undermines the statement that shoes are prescribed towards the “natural inward and outward roll” of the foot (pronation) recorded during gait analysis. Sadly, gait analysis cannot measure the natural roll of the feet because a) it is usually not conducted barefoot and b) the majority of runners tested are not adopting a natural running gait anyway.

See example of full-body analysis on our YouTube channel

Then there’s the methodology of gait analysis, which is flawed at its core. Gait analysis only video records your feet not the entire body. This is similar to recording a bowling ball striking the pins but not stance, steps and throw leading into that result. Would you feel confident telling someone how their throw is from just a recording of the end-result (how the ball hits the pins?). I would not.

We also need to accept the raw reality of the current injury crisis: gait analysis and running shoes matched to that gait have been around for a while. Yet the crisis remains and statistics continue to be depressing to read. No matter what your reasons, if you are doing something and it is not effective, it is time to consider a new approach:

Gait analysis out, running technique analysis in

So what to do? The real solution is very simple, and anyone with a portable camera supporting 60 frame per second slow-motion playback can execute the first part of it. You film someone outdoors or on a treadmill, from the side, and you film them both in their regular pair of shoes and barefoot. So why do not all running shops simply do this instead when it’s much less advanced technology than what is commonly set up for gait analysis? Because the second part of the solution is harder – interpreting what you see on the video and prescribing the right corrective actions.

Runner filmed on the uphill
CE Squad runner Amidou filmed on the uphill. Now cut away all but the feet and draw your conclusions.

This cannot be done in ten or twenty minutes, nor can it be done beyond the very basic intervention in an hour. It requires great skill and experience on part of the person looking at the video which includes a full understanding of biomechanics, the laws of motion and human movement. But this is the direction the running store industry needs to move towards. Traditional gait analysis has to disappear from running shops everywhere and be replaced by a full video assessment, a basic introductory session to get the runner on the right track straight out of the shop (or as close to it as possible) and then recommendation for follow-up work. Some people will require significant work, four hours or more, before they are technically at the level they need to be at to run enjoyably and injury free in their new footwear (or barefoot if they prefer). As an industry we have to start being honest about this and stop professing to provide magic bullet solutions. This is simply offering false hope. The plaster may be on the wound, and you may not see the bleeding, but it still leaks beneath.

But running shops will be driven out of business!

Enabling runners to run barefoot may seem like a pretty poor sales strategy for running stores out there until they consider that this will happen eventually anyway. But even if 100% of the running community adopts barefoot running styles, it does not have to mean the end of the running shoe industry nor does it have to mean a fatal blow to running stores, for whom shoes are a big money maker.

Given the variety of situations, weather conditions and terrains, there is likely to always be a demand for shoes. Promoting only the shoes we know have the correct attributes to enable optimal running form will be key: 3mm sole or less, wide toe-box, zero-drop profile and a sole that allows for necessary proprioceptive feedback and so on. All the major shoe brands are moving in this direction. Most are still very far away from where they need to be (Nike Frees being a particularly egregious example of misunderstood application of “natural running shoes”) but they will get there eventually and running stores need to be ahead of the game. It’ll be better for consumers, with less injuries and less expenses on shoes, and opens up new business opportunities for running store owners. Happy customers and happy consumers. Sounds perfect, right?

A road-map for a future without clunky shoes and gait analysis

As serious running professionals it is time to stop selling shoes in isolation as if they are a solution in themselves. They are not and, in the case of the majority of modern shoes, they are still a fundamental part of the problem. So, unfortunately, is gait analysis because it leaves a false impression with runners that they are buying shoes individually suited to them and their unique problem. The truth is that the shoes are only individually suited to the problem recorded for that runner in whatever they were wearing during the test. As for the unique problem – there is none! What the gait analysis measures is just a symptom of some fundamental technical errors, often caused by the very shoes being tested or being sold. These technical errors are the root cause that running store professionals need to hone in on in the future or refer on to specialists who can aid their customers with permanent solutions to the real problems. Rather than trying to rush sales staff through running technique courses, running store owners should form alliances with existing experts and use them as a resource to educate and protect their customers from injury.

Aoife Joyce posture squat
Posture squat with weighted bar – one of the many drills that can help transform a running style

With the knowledge that has come back to the forefront in the last five years, taking any other direction is irresponsible and, at worst, misleading. Eventually, general running store staff will have access to basic education for initial in-shop analysis, but it will take time for coaching programs to grow to this level of maturity especially as the number of skilled practitioners remains very low and much of the cutting-edge knowledge and practice has not yet made it’s way into the mainstream curriculum for sports professionals.

In the meantime, the solution is still fairly simple: sales staff can provide customers with an overview of the risks of each shoe and explain what steps they need to take to achieve optimal technical proficiency in running so they can run safely. Shop owners can set up relationships with experts to refer their customers on to or they can attempt to build experts into their business model on a contractual, project or full-time basis. Either way, shops can focus on their primary competency (sales, marketing, knowledge about equipment, clothing and gear) while providing their customers with expert guidance on a field usually outside their area of expertise (biomechanics, natural laws, prescription of corrective drills for running).

What are the big shoe manufacturers doing about it?

Every company producing running shoes have addressed the situation slightly differently. Some by appealing to the barefoot or minimalist romantics by offering certain attractive features such as a flexible sole (Nike Free again) while keeping most of the features of the shoe that makes it problematic (high heel, thick sole) and others by answering an over-engineering problem with more over-engineering. An example of the latter are Newton’s who attempt to fix the problem of forefoot landing and heel-to-toe differential in shoes by slapping a lot of rubber on the front of their shoes. These are early attempts that do not address the root cause, but just try to deal with symptoms and these approaches will die out over time. In the meantime, whenever you see a shoe with a big heel or other hi-tech features and advertisement stating “anatomically placed” or “super natural ride” just ignore it and remember it’s a ploy to get you to buy the “same old, same old” while catering to new consumer preferences. Think of these shoes as Light cigarettes.

Some companies are further down the line providing footwear that has most of the necessary attributes for natural running style but they often fail to make proper education a mandatory part of the process, thus driving down the credibility and success of their products and damaging the barefoot technology shoe industry as a whole and the running technique professionals by association. Early steps at creating online barefoot running programs or publishing books are a step in the right direction but this process requires direct intervention and running stores will need to acknowledge this moving forward. A large volume of running drills available online and much of the technique listed in recent barefoot publications is flawed and based on an incorrect understanding of human movement. This will be a great challenge for the industry and shop owners especially who will need to separate the wheat from the chaff, the charlatans from the real deal, to ensure their customers get  the correct level of advice.

Newton running shoe - a natural design?
One route ahead – Newton running shoes. A natural running shoe? Sadly not.

Inov-8 are one example of a progressive company which has slowly begun correcting it shoes towards the necessary specifications with zero-drop shoes and a widening of the toe-box. Their latest models still have minor flaws to fulfil all requirements but they will follow soon. Like most shoe companies they have not yet founded a dedicated coaching program to go with their shoes but have attempted a transition strategy by moving people from shoes with more heel to less heel over time. This is an ingenious sales strategy and an encourages a slower transition to low-heel footwear (not necessarily a good thing). Such a model still fails to address more fundamental problems with each runner’s technique and leaves high unpredictability of results. Inov-8 seem to be making moves to follow in the footsteps of VivoBarefoot, who designed a barefoot coaching model in collaboration with Lee Saxby. Yet these are still early days. Other manufacturers will follow and running stores need to be ready.

After all that, should I go get gait analysis

Sadly, for all its superficial attractions, gait analysis belongs the same place I would tell any of my runners to put their orthotics: in the bin. But running stores have the opportunity to replace it with something better and that is a prospect for all runners to be excited about.

As a consumer, in the meantime, inform yourself about running technique and natural running anyway you can. Attend the clinics with respected and proven professionals and get advice on your running form and what footwear to purchase. Then use this advice to make a truly informed purchasing decision.

Do you agree with René? Why not post your views here, as this debate is bound to rage on for some time.

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Director and coach at Borg Coaching Services
Rene Borg is the head coach of Glendalough AC and a passionate runner competing over all distances and terrains.

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