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Running Gait vs Walking Gait: What Is the Difference?

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About the Author

Doug Adams PT, DPT, SCS, OCS, CSCS Dr. Doug Adams is a Physical Therapist who has published and spoken at an international level on all things related to running. Doug has taught thousands of professionals his systematic approach to providing personalized plans for runners through the Certified Running Gait Analyst and Endurance Running Coaching courses. He also designed and created a portable 3D Motion Analysis system called Helix 3D for analyzing and categorizing running form that is used widely throughout the Department of Defense, professional sports, and commercial sectors.

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Walking and running may seem like extremely similar motions, but they actually involve distinct biomechanical processes. Walking involves a series of smooth, controlled movements where one foot is always in contact with the ground. In contrast, running incorporates a phase where both feet leave the ground, demanding greater force, speed, and coordination.

This distinction affects muscle engagement, joint impact, and overall energy expenditure. As a result, proper gait analysis is key for optimizing performance and preventing injuries while both walking and running. Here, we’ll look at these biomechanical differences and how they impact your body and health.

 

Key Differences Between Running and Walking Gait

 

Phases of the Gait Cycle 1

Phases of the Gait Cycle

Both running and walking involve a sequence of movements known as the gait cycle. The gait cycle includes four main phases:

  1. Initial Contact: This phase begins when the foot first contacts the ground.
  2. Midstance: Here, the body weight shifts over the foot.
  3. Propulsion: The foot pushes off the ground, propelling the body forward.
  4. Swing Phase: The leg swings forward to prepare for the next initial contact.

While running and walking intervals remain consistent, their execution is different, as shown in this table:

 

Phase Walking Running
Initial Contact
  • Heel strikes first
  • Rolling motion to toe
  • Provides stability and balance
  • Varies (heel, midfoot, forefoot landing)
  • Depends on style and speed
  • Quicker ground contact
  • Higher impact force
Midstance
  • Weight shifts gradually
  • Stable transition
  • One foot always on the ground
  • Rapid weight shift
  • Brief single-foot support
  • Faster and dynamic transition
Propulsion
  • Controlled push-off
  • Toe propulsion
  • Steady and deliberate
  • Continuous ground contact
  • Powerful and explosive push-off
  • Flight phase (both feet off the ground)
  • Greater forward force
Swing Phase
  • Smooth and controlled
  • Minimal force
  • Lower leg lift
  • Forceful forward swing
  • Higher knee lift
  • Quicker and more forceful next step

 

 

running gait

Running Gait Explained

Mechanics of Running

When running, both feet often leave the ground simultaneously, creating a moment of airborne suspension. This contrasts sharply with walking, where one foot always remains in contact with the ground.

Stride Length and Frequency

Running strides are longer and occur at a higher frequency than walking strides. This increased stride length and speed contribute to the higher impact forces experienced during running.

Center of Mass Movement

The body’s center of mass moves differently in running compared to walking. In running, the center of mass rises and falls more dramatically, adding to the dynamic nature of the movement.

Common Issues and Injuries

Running injuries often include shin splints, stress fractures, and other overuse injuries. These result from the repetitive high-impact forces and the dynamic nature of the running gait.

Impact Forces

Running exerts much higher impact forces on the body compared to walking. This happens because, during running, both feet leave the ground simultaneously, creating moments of airborne suspension.

When your foot lands, it absorbs a significant amount of force—often two to three times your body weight.

Unlike walking, where one foot always maintains ground contact, running subjects the body to repeated, high-impact forces.

These forces matter because they can strain your bones, joints, and muscles, leading to injuries if not managed properly.

Potential Injuries from High-Impact Forces

Without proper technique and conditioning, high-impact forces from running can lead to:

  • Shin Splints: Pain along the inner edge of the shinbone, often caused by repetitive stress on the bone and connective tissues.
  • Stress Fractures: Small cracks in the bone, typically resulting from overuse and high-impact activities.
  • Joint Pain: Particularly in the knees and hips, these joints bear the brunt of the impact.
  • Muscle Strains: Overstretched or torn muscles, often due to the intense demand placed on them during running.

Managing Impact Forces

To manage these impact forces, runners should focus on proper technique, including maintaining an appropriate stride length and frequency. Wearing suitable footwear that provides adequate support and cushioning can also help. Additionally, incorporating two types of exercises – strength training and flexibility – into your routine can strengthen muscles and joints, enhancing their ability to absorb and dissipate these forces.

 

walking gait

Walking Gait Explained

Mechanics of Walking

Walking involves controlled movements, starting with the heel striking the ground and rolling through to the toe. This methodical heel-to-toe motion stabilizes and balances the body, promoting smooth progress.

Stride Length and Frequency

Stride length is shorter, and steps occur less frequently compared to running. This results in a steadier, more controlled pace, minimizing stress on muscles and joints.

Center of Mass Movement

The body’s center of mass remains relatively stable and low during walking. This limited vertical movement contributes to the efficiency and reduced impact forces on the body.

 

Common Issues and Injuries

Typical walking-related injuries include plantar fasciitis and hip pain. These often stem from overuse or improper walking mechanics. A professional gait analysis can help identify the root causes of these injuries so that you can target the issue at the source.

Joint Stress

Due to repetitive motion and load-bearing activities, walking can lead to joint stress, especially in the knees and hips.

Comparing the Energy Expenditure

Energy Usage in Walking vs Running

Walking and running demand different levels of energy. Walking, a lower-energy activity, burns fewer calories per mile than running. Running’s higher intensity leads to greater energy expenditure, making it more effective for calorie burning.

Efficiency and Muscle Activation

Walking engages muscles efficiently, with less strain and a balanced activation pattern. Running, however, requires rapid, forceful muscle contractions, activating more muscle groups with higher intensity.

 

Analyze and Improve Your Gait

How to Analyze and Improve Your Gait

Professional Gait Analysis

Unlock detailed insights with professional gait analysis. Experts at RunDNA use advanced technology to assess your gait and identify inefficiencies and potential issues. They also offer a Runner Readiness Assessment program to give runners personalized recommendations for improvement, helping you achieve optimal performance.

DIY Methods and Tools

Several smartphone apps track and analyze your movements, which can lend some insight into your gait. You can also record yourself walking and running to review your form. Online resources offer step-by-step guides and tips for evaluating and refining your gait; these tools are accessible and effective for self-improvement. For instance, RunDNA offers Certified Running Gait Analyst and Endurance Running Coaching courses to help coaches gain in-depth knowledge of gait analysis tools and re-training

Exercises to Improve Gait

Focus on strengthening and stretching routines targeting the lower body, core, and hips. Exercises like lunges, squats, and core stabilization drills build stability, flexibility, and power. Regularly performing these exercises can lead to more effective and injury-free movement patterns, allowing you to walk and run more easily and confidently.

 


 

Final Thoughts on Running and Walking Gaits

Understanding the intricacies of running and walking gaits transcends basic knowledge; it’s a gateway to prevent injuries and boost performance. Mastery of these movement patterns involves recognizing the unique biomechanics, forces, and muscle engagements inherent in each gait.

Contact RunDNA for a comprehensive gait analysis. Our mission to provide running enthusiasts the necessary tools to assess your unique movement patterns and provides personalized recommendations to enhance your walking and running techniques.