Recent research has shown that many runners can improve efficiency and lower impact by adopting a slightly faster cadence than they typically fall into.

Other studies, however, have shown that cadence is individual to each runner, part of one’s natural stride, or preferred movement pattern. This self-selected stride is the most efficient—and any changes result in lower running efficiency.

A new study may explain the reason for this anomaly, and a hope for those looking to retrain their gait. This 2019 research out of East Carolina University looked at brain activity during gait retraining using EEG brain imaging. The study examined the cognitive changes following an increase in step rate over a period of time.

focussed runner
photo: Shutterstock

If you’ve put in the work yourself to try to alter your stride, you may have already have noted the amount of effort and concentration it requires and how much harder it feels. More than that, you may have found yourself thinking, “Will this ever become habitual for me, or will I always have to think about it this much?”

The researchers were asking the same question. “We have always wondered if runners actually ‘learn’ a new running pattern in a gait retraining study or if they have to think about it in order to maintain it,” said Richard Willy, professor in the School of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Science at the University of Montana and one of the researchers on the cognitive demands study.

8 Sessions of Mentally-taxing Focus

For the study procedure, participants had to methodically practice this altered running pattern for eight sessions, during which the EEG showed a large increase in brain activity in the prefrontal cortex. After the eight sessions, however, brain activation levels returned to the same level of activity as they were at baseline prior to the retraining program—the new gait had become a learned pattern.

“Changing a runner’s gait is initially quite mentally taxing and requires a lot of focus,” says Willy. Fail to stick with the work, and you may not get results, or at least not results that are easily maintained over time without undue mental processing.

Runners need to consider this mental cost and required commitment before considering a gait change. Furthermore, trying to change your stride without also changing the mechanics at the root of your inefficient movement patterns  usually leads to a less-efficient gait and can potentially end in injury.

To that end, this is not a casual decision or one that can prove valuable—or is advisable—for everyone. But there are some definitive instances when gait retraining may be in order.

Not To Be Undertaken Lightly

Ryan Green is an assistant professor of Southeastern Louisiana University in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Studies, where he has taught a running and biomechanics course. As a runner and running coach himself, Green knows that not all athletes can benefit from gait retraining. Once a hard-lined believer in minimalist shoes for all runners, he has since seen the research and athlete experience to validate that there is “a time and a place for gait changing.”

To help determine this, his first priority to address is to find out the athlete’s injury history and performance goals. He notes that in his experience as a certified athletic trainer, people suffering from chronic injuries or those who have hit a performance plateau and have not had success from other means of improvement can stand to benefit from gait retraining the most.

Willy agrees that gait retraining presents an opportunity to improve long-term performance because it allows athletes to improve energy efficiency. For whatever reason—experts speculate on a combination of sedentary lifestyles, compromised mechanics, shoes, neuromuscular inexperience—many runners, especially those who are new to the sport, run with a cadence that is slightly less than optimal for energy efficiency.

gait training on treadmill
photo: courtesy Ryan Green

Getting to this level of optimization however, requires not only consistency, but also strategy and a methodology behind the process. Green employs a specific change process protocol with his athletes: the Part-Part-Whole teaching method. After careful evaluation he breaks their stride down into parts and has the athlete focus on changing one specific part— posture, for example—at a time. As they confidently grasp each part, another is added, eventually putting it all together to create the whole: a retrained gait and improved performance.

The cognitive contribution to this process can’t be overlooked. If a runner has to think about a pattern constantly, it makes it more likely that he or she will give up because of the mental demand, or falter away from the pattern when getting fatigued during running. Furthermore, mental fatigue can lead to running burnout and the eventual dislike towards the sport they once loved.

Preventing this, and maintaining athlete longevity is a huge factor behind why Green only tackles one part at a time and pays specific attention to how the athlete feels while running with the new pattern. Adhering strictly to what coaches or conventional wisdom says is supposed to be altered, or how stride is supposed to look from a coach’s perspective is not relevant if the athlete does not feel comfortable and in control of the changes he or she is undertaking. By making changes one part at a time, Green is able to monitor this more effectively and address any problems along the way.

The good news: Given a period of intense, focused work as demonstrated from Willy’s study, and appropriate coaching techniques like those Green refers to, after the pattern is learned, it will become mentally efficient and habitual. And, perhaps more importantly, the new study shows that, if you want or need to make a change to your gait, and are willing to put in the focused work, you can see lasting results.