Physical Therapists Using Clinical Analysis To Discuss The Art And Science Behind Running and The Stuff We Put On Our Feet

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The Monday Shakeout: The Phases of Running Gait, An Introduction
By Matthew Klein

This week Matt talks about the different phases of running gait. We recognize that we often use these terms extensively in our content. To ensure our audience understands us, Matt has put together a brief introduction to the basics of running gait.



We talk frequently about the different phases of running gait, the different muscle actions or biomechanics associated with them, and how footwear may impact or influence them. For those new to these concepts, the following is an introduction to the different phases of running gait. The phases of running can be broken down between the stance phase and the swing phase of gait. The stance phase refers to the part of the gait cycle (it is cyclic as it repeats) where the foot of the limb is in contact with the ground. The swing phase refers to the part of the gait cycle where the foot of the limb is not in contact with the ground (ie swinging through the air).

Breaking Down the Stance Phase

The stance phase starts as the foot makes contact with the ground, called initial contact, and ends after pre-swing when the toes extend and the foot lifts off the ground. This phase of gait is also called the support phase as the limb supports the body on the ground. The first part, called initial contact, involves the single time point where the foot makes contact with the ground. Different people will land at different parts of the foot during this phase but regardless of where they land (heel, midfoot/foot flat or forefoot). This is still called initial contact.

Initial contact is the beginning of the loading response phase, which is where the body and limb absorb the shock associated with landing. The gluteal, quadriceps, and either anterior shin or calf muscles (depending on whether you land on your heel or forefoot) contract eccentrically to absorb impact forces. It is normal to land with the foot slightly in front of you (not excessively) during this stage as it gives the body a chance to actually absorb force (and release it later). As your body transitions over the foot in contact with the ground, you move into the midstance phase of gait.

The midstance phase is the point where your ankle (calf muscles), knee (quadriceps) and hip (gluteal/upper hamstrings) are supporting your body as your foot passes under you. This is also the point where the limb in contact with the ground transitions from shock absorption to propulsion (ie pushing/pulling you forward).

After midstance, your body transitions into terminal stance as your foot passes behind you. Your heel will come off the ground and your toes will begin to extend during this period. Pre-swing occurs during the last part of this as your toes maximally extend and finally, your foot comes off the ground.

The Swing Phase

When you foot leaves the ground, you have entered the swing phase of gait. This phase is also called the limb advancement phase as the purpose is to swing your leg from behind you back to the front to prepare for another landing. During running, the first part of the swing phase of one limb is the later part of swing phase for the other limb. This is also called the float phase as both limbs are off the ground (this is unique to running as walking always has at least one limb in contact with the ground at all times).

The first part of the swing phase is called early or initial swing. It involves the knee and hip flexing to pull the limb forward. The knee flexes to shorten the functional length of the limb, making it easier for the hip to flex and pull the leg forward. The ankle begins to dorsiflex (bend up) in order to further shorten the limb and avoid catching the toes on the ground. Midswing occurs after this where most of the limb is underneath the body (not in contact with the ground) and is the point where the knee is most flexed. This transitions into the final phase called late or terminal swing.

Terminal swing
involves the knee beginning to extend and the hip reaching the maximum amount of flexion to prepare for landing. The hamstrings and hip extensors are usually working eccentrically at this stage to control the extension of the knee and flexion of the hip while the ankle muscles, quadriceps and hip extensors prepare for landing. As soon as the foot touches the ground, the limb returns to the stance phase of gait, and the cycle continues.

On Repeat

This cycle continues to repeat on both limbs for however long you continue running. When we talk about footwear, we mostly talk about the stance phase of gait. This is the point where the shoe and the foot will most interact as the shoe functions as an interface with the ground. For heel strikers, the heel of the shoe will most impact the initial contact and loading phases of the stance phases. The midfoot will most impact midstance. The forefoot will impact terminal stance, especially with the transition over the toes and preparation for the transition into swing phase. Footwear can also have an impact on the swing phase. This may occur due to the weight of the shoe, which can create more or less work to lift and pull the shoe forward. The front of the shoe (forefoot rocker) can influence the first part of swing phase as it either facilitates or impedes the pre-swing phase. The back of the shoe can influence terminal swing as a posterior heel flare can prematurely end the swing phase as the foot lands prior to the body being ready for impact.

While this might seem overwhelming at first, practicing this can be a helpful way to understand what is happening. Although not the same due to the lack of a flight phase, slowly walking and thinking through each part of the gait cycle can be a great way to practice what is happening. I encourage you to focus on the foot first as that is what most of us are thinking about with footwear. As you become more comfortable with that, you can add the knee and hip into this. Next time, we will talk more about specific muscle actions during the phases of running gait and how footwear may influence this.

References

Jacquelin Perry, M. (2010). Gait analysis: normal and pathological function. New Jersey: SLACK.

Neumann, D. A. (2009). Neumann Kinesiology of the musculoskeletal system: Foundations for Rehabilitation.

Novacheck, T. F. (1998). The biomechanics of running. Gait & posture, 7(1), 77-95.



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