Turkey Trot Gait Analysis

As you lace up your shoes for a traditional Turkey Trot Thanksgiving Day race, here are a few tips from a real turkey trot gait analysis that may help your performance.

Take a look at this video of three wild turkeys–two hens and a tom, I think–running down a road. (I recommend viewing with the sound off so you don’t have to listen to the radio playing in the car.)

I’ve seen a fair number of wild turkeys near our home, but I’ve never seen them run and had no idea they could really do it–they generally lurk just off the road in a way that seems vaguely menacing.

But look at those birds in the video go! Clearly running is a functional gait for them, and honestly I find it beautiful and almost hypnotic.

They remind me of elite marathoners in their leg action, cadence, short ground contact time, and that beautiful spinal undulation that moves their heads from side-to-side.

When Turkeys Do–and Don’t–Fly

Apparently the biggest difference between turkey running form and human running form is that the birds do “grounded running,” in which they always have either one or two feet on the ground. Humans walk this way but our running also involves a “flight” phase when neither foot is on the ground.

I guess the turkey flight phase happens not in running but in… flight. And for humans the brief moments of flight in running are the closest we pathetic wingless giants can get to the experience of being a bird (without special equipment, anyway).

Humans can also learn to do grounded running, which this study found decreased musculoskeletal load by 35% but increased energy cost by a moderate 5%. Some runners already do this without realizing it–mostly those who look like they’re in pain but are determined to run anyway.

Human runners usually switch from walking to normal (un-grounded) running at a speed where walking starts taking more energy than running. This is what makes race walking such a tough sport: it requires you to walk at speeds above the threshold at which running becomes more efficient.

However, if you’re not a regular runner but you are looking to complete your local turkey trot, a grounded running form might be a practical strategy to reduce your injury risk.

For most runners, though, this is not necessarily something I recommend you learn from wild turkeys. Your speed will be limited, you can actually learn to run with a flight phase in a way that’s completely healthy, and after all, it’s that feeling of flight we love the most.

That said, these birds have such a short ground contact time and such a brisk, springy gait that I couldn’t really believe they had no flight phase until I saw them from the side. That briskness is definitely worth emulating.

Those Kooky Knees

Turkey running form appears to also differ from human running in the knees, which seem to bend backwards. However this is misleading.

Those are actually not the birds’ knees. The real knees are higher up, hidden by feathers, and they bend forwards like ours. What look like knees in the video are really their ankles, as with many familiar animals including your cat or dog.

Turkeys are therefore another example of forefoot running in the animal kingdom. They pretty much couldn’t run on their heels if they tried… at least not without long, skinny, and unbelievably cushioned running shoes.

Who Waddles, and When

Let’s return to that undulating movement I mentioned before. Humans and turkeys both do it, and in both species it’s called waddling when it becomes exaggerated. However you’d never call what these birds do “waddling” any more than what a world-class marathoner does.

This lateral shift is particularly clear in the bird in the back (the one I think is a tom). Notice how his head moves side to side to line up exactly with his stance foot. In all three birds you can see that gentle bouncing from side-to-side.

This movement has actually been a focus of turkey gait research (I kid you not), due to the altered gait patterns–specifically, waddling–of domestic turkeys who’ve been bred to have larger breasts and more meat overall. Scientists are trying to understand whether this waddling also causes the leg problems seen in domestic birds. Here’s a particularly comprehensive study.

The researchers found that medio-lateral ground reaction force increased with speed for all turkeys–male and female, domestic and wild. So the side-to-side weight shift is an essential element of gait in turkeys as well as humans, and is important for running.

If you’re a gait geek, you’ll probably find the whole paper interesting. Otherwise, scroll down to the discussion section, where they focus on waddling and shuffling gait patterns. The general discussion throughout the paper suggests that the parallels between domestic turkey and obese human gait patterns are inevitable, I don’t find that this has applied to any of my clients, regardless of weight or size, so don’t take it too much to heart.

I find the researchers’ comments on the possible functionality of lateral weight shift interesting:

It remains to be determined how waddling affects the metabolic and mechanical cost of locomotion in domestic turkeys. Waddling was once thought to be energetically wasteful (Pinshow et al., 1977), but there is evidence that waddling can save mechanical energy during walking, as is the case in penguins (Griffin and Kram, 2000). In penguins, the lateral KE from waddling allows them to recover more mechanical energy from each stride by increasing the total KE that can be converted to PE. In addition, penguins’ lateral movements also make the total KE more out of phase with PE. Likewise, the domestic turkey has much higher medio-lateral energy fluctuations than the wild turkey, somewhat out of phase with PE, making mechanical energy savings possible for them as well.

Fold Your Wings

Another way the birds remind me of elite marathoners is in the lack of flailing arms. The best human distance runners generally keep their elbows quite bent and their hands close to their hearts. From the back you’ll see elbows, but even though they optimally stick out a bit, the overall arm movement is compact.

That supple rocking weight shift through the torso that we see in these turkeys is also visible in human runners, but only if the armswing isn’t excessively large.

Turkey Takeaways

So here are a few tips to help you run like a turkey (in a good way) when you go out for your trot:

  • a brisk cadence can take you far even without a flight phase
  • don’t land hard on your heels
  • go ahead and shift your weight side-to-side
  • fold your wings instead of spreading them wide

It’s not the only way to run, but those birds sure do make it seem appealing, and what makes them good runners can work for humans too. In fact, my hands-on-hips running speed hack can quickly get you to good wild-turkey running form. Read about it here.

This, on the other hand, there’s no point in trying:

8 thoughts on “Turkey Trot Gait Analysis”

  1. I thought of you when I saw the video of the duck in this year’s NYC marathon – some good lateral weight shift on show there! Worth a look if you haven’t seen it. Seems we can learn a lot from birds 🙂

    • I saw that too. What an endearing creature! And, different from turkeys, not a type of bird that’s a natural runner, so that’s pretty amazing.

  2. Jae, you mentioned in yesterday’s zoom that you’re planning to take a class on tracking, and it reminded me of something I learned many years ago in a college animal physiology class about dinosaurs. Tracks and gait analysis are among the clues scientists used to make the case that dinosaurs are more closely related to birds than to reptiles. The fossilized tracks allowed them to estimate the dinosaurs’ gate (stride length, pressure through different parts of the foot, etc) and to conclude that the energy required to move like this required a metabolic system closer to that of birds (warm-blooded, four-chambered heart, etc) than to reptiles (cold-blooded, three-chambered heart, etc). I’m sure the details have been updated and refined a great deal since the 1980s, but the principle remains the same.

    It’s fascinating stuff, and I hope you’ll share some of what you’re learning with the BR Community!

    • That is so fascinating, Karen! Thanks for sharing it. I have indeed started my tracking class and it’s beyond fascinating. I can’t say yet what the concrete carryover to understanding human running will be, but I’m pretty sure there will be insights along the way as I process what I’m learning.


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