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J Appl Physiol (1985). 2011 Jun;110(6):1682-90. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00536.2010. Epub 2011 Mar 10.

Distinct fast and slow processes contribute to the selection of preferred step frequency during human walking.

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Dept. of Biomedical Physiology & Kinesiology, Simon Fraser Univ., 8888 Univ. Dr., Burnaby, BC, Canada V5A 1S6.


Humans spontaneously select a step frequency that minimizes the energy expenditure of walking. This selection might be embedded within the neural circuits that generate gait so that the optimum is pre-programmed for a given walking speed. Or perhaps step frequency is directly optimized, based on sensed feedback of energy expenditure. Direct optimization is expected to be slow due to the compounded effect of delays and iteration, whereas a pre-programmed mechanism presumably allows for faster step frequency selection, albeit dependent on prior experience. To test for both pre-programmed selection and direct optimization, we applied perturbations to treadmill walking to elicit transient changes in step frequency. We found that human step frequency adjustments (n = 7) occurred with two components, the first dominating the response (66 ± 10% of total amplitude change; mean ± SD) and occurring quite quickly (1.44 ± 1.14 s to complete 95% of total change). The other component was of smaller amplitude (35 ± 10% of total change) and took tens of seconds (27.56 ± 16.18 s for 95% completion). The fast process appeared to be too fast for direct optimization and more indicative of a pre-programmed response. It also persisted even with unusual closed-loop perturbations that conflicted with prior experience and rendered the response energetically suboptimal. The slow process was more consistent with the timing expected for direct optimization. Our interpretation of these results is that humans may rely heavily on pre-programmed gaits to rapidly select their preferred step frequency and then gradually fine-tune that selection with direct optimization.

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