I know that sounds like a strange title for a blog post. The fact is, I had been running with a bizarre running style these past few years and it was a long road to figuring out how to correct it and even how to diagnose the problem. I noticed a few years ago that my running gait was somehow “off,” but I couldn’t really figure out what was going on. I even had a co-worker make a comment on my strange way of running when she and I crossed paths (literally) on a run one weekend, so it was obvious to other people as well.
Still, I continued like this for years. One evening when going through photos online I found a video my husband has recorded of me running a race in New Hampshire. My gait was flat out terrible! I looked like I was hobbling and this was only in the first couple of miles of the race, and I wasn’t injured.
It was time to seek advice of others so early last fall I found a physical therapist who could at least tell me what the problem was. At my first physical therapy appointment, the therapist watched me walk and immediately saw the issue I had tried to describe to her. I didn’t even know how to put it into words other than “I straighten my right leg when I should be bending it.” Apparently that’s knee hyperextension. Of course it makes perfect sense in hindsight.
In a case like mine when knee hyperextension isn’t caused by an (apparent) injury, there are three main causes: postural habits, weak muscles around the knee, and having very flexible knees. In my case, I think all three apply to me. Also, this is the same leg I broke when I was 7 years old and since then I’ve always felt like it was weaker than my other leg. See my post Biking, Broken Leg, and a Bribe- How to be a Better Runner by Cycling.
The physical therapist had me do several exercises including single-leg ball squats (so as to not put so much pressure on the knee as regular squats), lunges, single-leg leg presses, and other exercises to strengthen my ankles, and relax my tight IT bands. In addition to the exercises I did during physical therapy I was sent home with a list of other exercises including diagrams and instructions how to do them. That first couple of weeks of therapy, I was exhausted by the end of my hour of PT. I quickly realized just how bad the imbalance was in my legs and just how much weaker my right leg had become than my left leg over time.
In addition to all of the exercises I was prescribed, the therapist also used Graston technique around my knee and on my quadricep. This technique is a trademarked method using a set of stainless steel instruments of various sizes and shapes, to essentially loosen adhesions in tight muscles and tendons. Chiropractors and physical therapists often employ this method with their patients. A tool is used to “scrape” over the effected area to help break up scar tissue, move toxins out, get rid of tendonitis, while increasing blood flow to the area. I found it uncomfortable but not painful until she did it to my quadricep. That was very painful and it reminded me of the first time I had a massage therapist do deep tissue massage on my iliotibial band when I had iliotibial band syndrome (ITBS) many years prior.
After going to physical therapy for four weeks and doing the prescribed exercises daily at home, I began to question at what point do I stop going to physical therapy. My knee definitely felt stronger at this point. I could do things on that leg that I hadn’t been able to do in years, like hop up and down just as easily as I could on my left leg. Five weeks after my first appointment, I told myself I would see how I did on my next long run and then talk to the physical therapist about ending my therapy. That weekend I ran 10 miles with no problems during or after running.
Six weeks after starting therapy, I mentioned to my therapist that I felt like I didn’t need to come back any longer. She asked me how my running was going and told me if I had any problems come up I could always come back. As I mentioned earlier, that was last fall and I haven’t been back.
Another thing that I’ve been trying to work on is to improve my gait mechanics. That’s been the most difficult of all of this. At first, it was pretty easy to try to maintain a slight bend in my right knee when walking, but the really difficult thing was to do this while running. The first few times I practiced changing my gait when running, I felt so out of breath and so utterly exhausted that I questioned whether it was worth it. I started doing this way back when I was training for the half marathon in San Diego and honestly, I gave up and went back to hyperextending my leg. After that, I ran another race in New Jersey with my same hobbled gait; that’s me at the finish for that race in the gif above.
This summer when I wasn’t training for a race, I decided to try and work on my running gait again. I’d like to continue running for many years to come and I was worried if I don’t change my gait, that may lead to other problems such as with my hips until I eventually wouldn’t be able to run. After a full summer, it’s definitely gotten to the point where I feel like I can run about the same pace as I used to with a hyperextended right leg without getting out of breath, so I think it’s getting easier. By the time I run my next half marathon in November, hopefully there will be enough muscle memory there for me to be able to run the race with a bent knee, the way it should be!
Have any of you tried to change your running gait? How did that go? Have you tried any apps or devices that analyze running gait?