The current study investigated stride-to-stride fluctuations of step rate and contact time in response to enforced step frequency perturbations as well as adaptation and de-adaptation behavior.
Forty distance runners ran at a self-selected speed and were asked to match five different enforced step frequencies (150, 160, 170, 180, and 190 beats per min). The influence of experience was explored, because running is a skill that presumably gets better with practice, and increased years of running experience is protective against injury. Detrended fluctuation analysis was used to determine the strength of long-range correlations in gait fluctuations at baseline, during the perturbation, and post-perturbation. Adaptive response was measured by the ability to match, rate of matching, and aftereffect of step frequency perturbations.
The structure of stride-to-stride fluctuations for step rate and contact time did not change during the perturbation or post-perturbation compared to baseline. However, fluctuations in step rate were affected by the level of perturbation. Runners with the most experience had a less persistent structural gait pattern for both step rate and contact time at baseline. Highly experienced runners also demonstrated the best adaptive response. They better matched the enforced step frequency, reached the enforced step frequency sooner, and returned to preferred step frequency more quickly following removal of the perturbation.
These findings indicate baseline locomotor flexibility may be beneficial to achieve task demands and return to a stable state once the task is complete. Increased locomotor flexibility may also be a contributing factor for reduced injury risk in experienced runners.