A recent study analyzing the running style of Usain Bolt, the faster sprinter in history, has found him to have an erratic running stride. His right leg hits the track with 13% more force than his left leg, according to researchers at Southern Methodist University. This means that his left leg remains on the ground 14% longer than his right leg. So the question is: if he evened out his stride, if both legs hit the ground with equal force and remained on the ground for the same time, could the fastest man of all-time be even faster? And fundamentally, what interests us about this is how it pertains to your own running: Should you have your gait analyzed and corrected?
After reading the study from Southern Methodist and gathered from my own reporting on the matter in the book Feet, Don’t Fail Me Now, I believe the answer is no. Here’s a takeaway from the report on Bolt: “Correcting his asymmetry would not speed him up and might even slow him down,” Peter Weyand, director of the SMU lab, said. “It could be an unnatural gait for him.”
I’ve been watching my 6-year-old run all summer long and she has the most beautiful natural form. Running comes naturally to us as we ran to hunt down our prey in prehistoric times before we’d even developed hunting weapons. Running is in our DNA. It’s something we fundamentally know how to do. And there’s all sorts of things that can help runners, from gait-correcting sneakers that reduce pronation to detailed stride analysis that will help us land on our forefoot instead of our heels. But like the pronation-controlled shoes weren’t able to bring down the rate of running injuries, a gait-correction might not be best for Usain Bolt. Odds are your running can be improved by one thing: run more.
Benno Nigg is one of the most famous running injury experts and biomechanic superstars in the world. For years he ran the Human Performance Lab at the University of Calgary and he’s been employed by almost every big sneaker company to help them design sneakers. It was his research that led to the pronation-correcting shoe market. I spoke to him awhile back and asked him what was the world’s best sneaker. Of course he had no answer. There’s no “perfect,” sneaker, just the perfect sneaker for you. And very few of us need sneakers to adjust our running style. He told me he wished he never even thought up “pronation-correcting,” as a shoe design.
“So how would you advise your mom to pick out her next pair of shoes?” I asked him.
“I would tell her to try on several pairs,” he said, “and whichever ones felt best, I’d tell her to buy those.”
Running can be arduous. Results can be hard to earn. It’s tempting to want to make improvements. And there’s a billion-dollar industry designed to sell you products that help. But reading that study on Usain Bolt—where physicists deduced down to 0.03 seconds of peak impact force—and having their grand conclusion be something along the lines of: “let’s just leave his running style alone,” I think it serves as a good reminder for everyone: How you run is most likely the way that you should run. Running is natural and for proof, watch any 6-year-old at the park. It doesn’t take a physicist to determine that a smile on your face will go a lot further toward meeting your race goals than time spent in a lab or a session of kinesiology.