What is the difference between walking and running? As runners, particularly runners who often stake their identity on running, this is a question that we should have thought deeply about. But the reality is that in the vast majority of cases, it remains ignored.
Say, the simplest and perhaps most important difference between walking and running—or at least the one with the most consequences—is that running includes a flight phase while walking does not. In other word, walking has a static interaction with gravity, while running has a dynamic one. But upon further consideration, there’s a lot more to be said:
Bounding (by which I mean jumping continuously) also has a flight phase. So does skipping. Of course, these are obviously different from running in that running alternates support, similarly to walking, whereas bounding does not (since both feet land together) and neither does skipping (since each foot repeats its support of the body before alternating to the other).
Running is somehow special when you compare it to bounding and jumping, at least as far as the body is concerned: when we need to travel faster than walking allows, neither bounding or skipping are our go-to methods of travel. Instead, we run. Although this may seem too obvious to be important, it’s important precisely because of that: What is it exactly that running offers us?
All the biomechanics junkies are way ahead of me at this point. Running offers us a way to contralaterally (read: using one leg and its opposing arm) maintain balance and support: when one leg pumps down, the other arm comes up, allowing the body to push on the ground alternately while not compromising balance.
And there’s another requirement: running uses the energy return capabilities of our tendon system (in particular the achilles tendon) to maximize running economy. This means that, by loading the achilles tendon like you would load a spring, the body manages to put the force that it arrives at the ground with into the next step, to make running more “economical” by reducing the amount of energy that the body puts into the next stride cycle: the achilles tendon stretches during the landing and stance phase, and then shortens explosively during pushoff, when the leg and foot, well, push off against the ground to begin the next stride cycle.
Neither bounding nor skipping allow us this increase in economy: to be able to bound successfully, we would have to be counterbalanced in the sagittal plane, (read: front to back) in order to put the hips at the midline of the body. Basically, we’d need a tail. But since we don’t, when we land from a bound (or squat), the hips are behind the center of gravity, and the knees are in front, in order to compress the body properly.
But if we had a tail like a kangaroo, the hips would remain under the center of gravity during the landing phase, because our weight would be more evenly distributed behind and forward of our hips. Without going too far into it, this means that the force put into each bound is primarily generated by muscle power for us, whereas for the kangaroo it is a product of tendon energy return. Skipping doesn’t increase economy either since energy is lost in that second step before alternating legs.
So, we can begin to lay down the differences between running and walking in this short list:
- A flight phase
- Contralateral stance and equilibrium
- A maximization of running economy
This is where we finally get to why “interaction with gravity” is so important: when running, the human body puts itself at risk of injury by taking off and then accelerating back to the ground, but it is counting on using that acceleration, generated by the force of gravity, to power its next step. This means that an important amount of the energy that is being put into each step is borrowed from the last, and doesn’t come from inside the body at all.
Running diverges from jogging in the following way: Jogging doesn’t really harness the energy return properties of the tendon system. It doesn’t allow for an improvement in running economy. Why not?
In order to create energy return, the relevant tendons (say, the achilles) have to remain taut during the landing phase, in order to stretch. This means that as the foot lands, the extensor muscles along the rear of the leg (hamstrings, gastrocnemius, glutes) begin contracting even as the frontal muscles (quads, tibialis anterior) take the majority of the load.
When the back and front muscles play together like that, a large amount of the energy that the body accelerated towards the ground with goes into the tendon system, and gets released as the foot leaves the ground.
During a jog, the leg muscles are working in a fundamentally different way. Because a jog is slower than a run, the forces being generated are a lot smaller, and so a the rear and the front muscles of the leg can work relatively independently of one another: the front muscles take the body’s load when the foot comes down, and the back muscles push off as the leg goes back. The tendons never become stretched, so they don’t get loaded that much at all.
This means that the jogging cadence is much slower than the running cadence: in order to maximize tendon load, the body is forced to increase the speed and rate at which the legs hit the ground: since the muscles at the back of the leg tense the tendon springs, this drives the leg down at a much greater speed than otherwise, resulting in a faster transition from landing to pushoff, resulting in a much faster stride rate.
However, this also separates jogging from actual running from a power standpoint: in order to run rather than jog, the muscles must be powerful enough that they can hold the tendons taut while the weight of the body comes down. (And of course, the tendons must be resistant enough to support this).
This is the minimum bar in order to run—developing enough leg power (and naturally, the aerobic power necessary to sustain it) that three interrelated capabilities emerge:
- The ability to hold the tendons taut throughout the stride cycle.
- Increasing the stride rate and successfully maintaining it.
- Equipping the body to successfully load tendons instead of absorbing power with muscle and bone tissue.
I believe it is these three capabilities that make someone a runner.