Striving for Symmetry

In the last issue, we walked through each phase of the running stride in detail. Here we look at the importance of symmetry in developing proper alignment to contribute to the best possible running form.

To run fast for many years, you must be efficient and stable and recognize that your body form is determined by your own mobility, aka range of motion. Range of motion determines the safe distance of movement for the muscles, tendons and joints. The body must have a stable base to generate power to move the extremities through a symmetrical range of motion.

Finding symmetry means achieving a balance of strength, flexibility and coordination both on each side of the body and within each muscle. Gross imbalances in strength and flexibility between your right and left sides could lead very quickly to injury.

Comparing the size of large muscles like quads in the mirror is a basic shortcut to ferreting out imbalances. Measuring muscle length is another; the hamstrings are particularly well suited to length comparisons via this simple test: Lie on your back on the floor and raise one leg up to the widest comfortable angle you can while keeping it straight. Have a friend measure the angle you were able to achieve. Now try the other leg—were you able to achieve the same angle? Different ranges could create different stride lengths in each leg. Over long distances, this could result in unbalanced force in the pelvis and low back, leading to injury in the hip flexors or low back.

Devoting more time to strengthening one side of the body may be necessary if you feel a strength or flexibility discrepancy exists. This runs counter to how many of us think about strength and flexibility training, during which we are typically accustomed to performing equal weight and reps on both the right and left muscles. Keep this in mind and realize that over time, a regular routine will begin to foster a natural equality of ability on each side of the body. The trick is knowing how to look for the imbalance in the first place.

After strength and flexibility, testing for coordination and balance are the next steps to achieving symmetry. To test for balance, pay attention to how the bottom of each foot feels while running. Look in particular for indicators that you may be shifting weight to one or the other side when landing. Even listening carefully to the sound of your footfalls can lead to a discovered poor habit.

Balance checks are not limited to times of intense physical activity. Check your balance, for example, when barefoot and performing a light activity like brushing your teeth. Stand on your right foot for 30 seconds, then on your left. Was one test harder to remain balanced during?

Coordination is a bit harder to test. Runners sometimes test coordination in the water, slowly working through the running stride and focusing intensely on each side of the body, in a sort of slow-motion analysis of which side “feels” more effortless and which side may require continued concentration on good form. Cyclists do a drill on a stationary bike that involves cycling first with one leg for about a minute, then the other for a minute. This helps them perceive any limitations in not just coordination but strength and endurance as well. 

When we have achieved symmetry in running form, alignment generally follows. Alignment is the outcome of symmetry in the same way that a car's alignment is achieved with symmetrical components. If one side of a car's tires are bald, the car shakes at high speeds because its alignment has been compromised. Joint stiffness on one side of the body, scar tissue that restricts muscle length, or a discrepancy in major muscle strength all throw the body out of alignment. When we regain alignment by working mindfully toward symmetry, we are essentially keeping our mechanical parts in relative position with each other for optimal power output.
Adapted from Run Strong, Chapter 7, “Aligning and Balancing the Body,” by Chris Chorak, PT, ATC, pp. 133-136, Kevin Beck, ed., 2005

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