KILDARE RUNNING LIFE: Even the best athletes run lopsided

Physio and Newbridge AC member Barry Kehoe gives his view

Barry Kehoe


Barry Kehoe


KILDARE RUNNING LIFE: Even the best athletes run lopsided

Usain Bolt

What you think you look like while running and what you actually look like are two very different things.

Unless you’re constantly running alongside a full-length mirror, it’s impossible to notice the nuances of your running pattern. In life we love symmetry, equilibrium and balance. There is beauty in proportion, and it’s found throughout nature — a perfectly shaped leaf, a butterfly with patterned, mirrored wings. It’s one of the most prevalent themes in art, architecture, and design in cultures all over the world and throughout human history.

Aesthetically, symmetry is visually pleasing. We even look for it in our partners. But aesthetics is not the only part of our lives where we seek balance. The pursuit of 'work/life balance' has become as elusive as the search for the holy grail. The balance between work and leisure time is the coveted state of wellbeing and equilibrium that is constantly sought but rarely achieved.

Running is no different, because symmetry — or a lack thereof — plays a crucial role in both running performance and injury occurrence in runners. An asymmetrical body could be the cause of a niggling injury, or the barrier blocking you from a new Personal Best.

At the end of the day, all runners want to get better at their sport and prevent injury. Differences in muscle strength, joint range of motion, flexibility, balance, and mechanics between sides of the body is one of the elements often highlighted as a risk factor for injury.

But in reality, physical symmetry in runners is just like work/life balance — it is a myth. The human body is not a Volkswagen car. It is inherently asymmetrical, making it impossible and unrealistic for any runner to achieve complete symmetry.

Stronger side

All runners have a dominant side that’s typically stronger than the other side. In the case of running, if one leg can’t pull its own weight, the stronger side has to work harder to compensate.

Over time, the added impact and stress can cause problems with joints, muscles, tendons and ligaments, leading to general pain and overuse injuries.

In runners with a single-leg overuse injury, there is often significant differences in strength between the hip muscles on the injured and non-injured side.

Even the fastest man in history Usain Bolt is lopsided. The world record-holder in both the 100 and 200-meter hit a top speed of around 27 mph (43.5 kph), and has clearly established himself as the greatest sprinter of all time. But Bolt has an uneven, asymmetrical stride.

This was established by linking his running mechanics to ground reaction forces. Bolt's right leg strikes the ground with 13 percent more peak force than his left leg, and his left leg stays in contact with the track about 14 percent longer than the righ.

The most feasible reason for Bolt’s running asymmetry is the effects of his scoliosis (his right leg is functionally 1/2 inch shorter than his left). This makes it clear that that 100% symmetry is extremely rare.

It’s easy to find asymmetry in all of us — small discrepancies in leg length, scoliosis or ankle flexibility to name a few, so it isn’t a question of whether or not asymmetry exists, but rather how much of it.

Simple observations, like a marked difference in glute strength, hamstring flexibility or even an inability to rotate as far to one side as the other well may indicate an asymmetry that needs to be addressed, because disregarding the more obvious differences may be a recipe for injury and poor performance.

So just as in the case of work/life balance, achieving equilibrium may prove impossible for most of us, but it shouldn’t stop us trying.