Running is a great workout, but the way you run — your stride length, how your feet land, how your hips move — could be making you prone to injury, say experts. A gait analysis could be the answer.

Whether you're a long-time runner or a novice, getting a gait analysis might make you a better, smoother, and yes, maybe even faster runner as well as help protect your joints and muscles from stress and injury.

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What is a gait analysis?

A gait analysis is what it sounds like: an analysis of your running gait. Even the best runners have inefficiencies or abnormalities in their form. Finding those problems helps experts figure out how you can run more ergonomically and avoid injury.

The aim of a gait analysis is to identify why a runner is injured, or identify a form problem that puts you at risk for injury. "It’s a lot more than looking at the feet," says Heather Vincent, PhD, director of the University of Florida Sports Performance Center, which conducts gait analysis testing. "We keep seeing people coming in who say they got a gait analysis and were fitted for shoes and got injured," she says. "It turns out they may have gone to the mall, or to shoe stores [for the analysis]."

A professional gait analysis, says Vincent, includes:

  • A brief screening to evaluate your physical history and strength
  • Running on a treadmill that captures your movements. "As you run, infrared light is used to capture your running motion," says Trevor Leavitt, sports performance program manager at the University of Florida center. ''That data is sent to a computer that analyzes your motion according to running norms."
  • An evaluation of your current running shoes

During that video, ''we look at the whole body and how it moves in space," Vincent says. "If someone only looks at the knees down they are only getting a snapshot, not the whole body.” (Some shoe stores offer these kinds of analyses.) “A true gait analysis looks at the full motion of the body and how the body reacts with the ground when you strike it. It looks at what the ankle, hip, pelvis and knee are doing."

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What’s wrong with this picture?

When evaluating the analysis, one of the things Vincent looks at is how much the runner bounces in space. "We don't want a lot of bounce," she says. Too much bounce can put added stress on the hips and knees, upping the risk for injury.

Stride width and length are analyzed, too. If they are out of kilter with your height, that's an injury risk, too.

Experts also look at how much time your foot is on the ground versus in the air. "If your foot is on the ground too long, it predisposes to injury," Vincent says.

Fixing what was found

At the end of the analysis the runner receives a report explaining what the analysis found, Vincent says — and a prescription for making changes.

"We give them an exercise program'' to correct their body mechanics, says Vincent. For example, she says, a runner may come in complaining of an ache on the outside of the knees. The analysis may reveal their bounce is a little excessive and their stride length too long for their height. Perhaps the runner doesn't have enough strength to prevent the knee from collapsing inward and makes up for it by taking too long of a step, Vincent says. The fix? Body weight exercises to get control of the knee motion, and strengthening of the glutes, hip and core.

The recommendations can correct abnormal loading on a joint and also protect cartilage within the joints, says Vincent.

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Where to go, what to pay

Vincent recommends finding a university-based program, such as the one at the University of Florida. Other programs include the University of Virginia's Speed Clinic for Runners and the University of Nebraska’s Gait Analysis Lab for Runners .

Costs vary widely across the country, from less than $100 to $250 or higher. Be sure to ask what the analysis will include and what the fee will be before booking the appointment.

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Kathleen Doheny is a Los Angeles journalist specializing in health, behavior and fitness topics.