The human body is meant to walk and run, says Seattle doctor of physical therapy Alison Gillespie. It’s an essential survival skill from a time when humans tracked prey and migrated incredible distances on foot.  

Today, running is a popular sport, drawing 17.1 million runners to road races in 2015, according to Running USA. For both the competitive and “lifestyle” athletes, a running analysis can be valuable in increasing performance and decreasing injury risk, Gillespie added.  

“Running is a dynamic single-leg sport,” said Gillespie of Real Rehab Sports + Physical Therapy in Seattle. “It is absorbing force and transferring momentum from one foot to the other in rapid succession. It is perceived as a simple activity, but the movements involved are actually quite complex.”  

Running requires competence in three areas: adequate mobility in joints and muscles, adequate single-leg stability and alignment when landing and pushing off the ground, and strength and endurance in muscles to support thousands of steps with good running form 

“Any deficits in these areas could easily produce faults in running form which often trigger running injuries or suboptimal running performance,” Gillespie said. 

Identifying these faults is the goal of a biomechanical running analysis performed by a specially trained physical therapist like Gillespie. 

Physical therapists understand the complex interactions between the foot, knee, hip and torso that occur during running and are able to identify impairments that may occur throughout the running motion. Once impairments and their causes are identified, a physical therapist can recommend custom solutions. 

“The reasons may be completely different for each runner, which is why a comprehensive running analysis is often the most effective and efficient way to solve running related injuries,” Gillespie said.  

Gillespie says running advice often focuses too much on the treatment of symptoms (i.e., pain and inflammation) instead of eliminating the root cause of the pain. Such discomforts and injuries are often what brings runners in to see her in the first place. 

“Eighty to 90 percent of first appointments are the result of soreness or injury,” she said. “Only 10 percent are to discuss performance.” 

And a crucial part of diagnosing running injuries, Gillespie said, involves talking and listening. 

“We discuss their running and injury history, goals and training plan,” she said. “What is sore and when? We talk about anatomy, physiology and the three requirements for pain-free running.”  

A client may, for example, complain about knee pain, but after observing the client walk and run, Gillespie may determine the root cause is due to hip weakness and ankle inflexibility coupled with a rigid shoe and an overly ambitious training plan. 

“Each client has a unique set of factors that interact to produce injury or stress,” she said.  

Gillespie has made studying dynamic human motion the focus of her professional career, starting with the biomechanics laboratory at the University of Washington and recently completing an intensive course at University of Southern California focusing on the biomechanics of running and using technology to measure running gait. She is also a certified distance running coach and an avid lifelong runner.  

For more details about running analyses and how it may improve performance and prevent injury, contact the physical therapy team at Real Rehab Sports + Physical Therapy in Seattle.