At this very moment there are probably millions of runners out there pounding the pavement or training on the treadmill. In the U.S. alone, last year more than 64 million people went jogging or running. And over 10 million of these individuals are regulars, running more than twice a week.
Running is a hit because it provides all the benefits of endurance exercise – such as reducing blood pressure, total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, fasting glucose, and body fat – while at the same time elevating oxygen consumption and HDL cholesterol. And, as it is a weight bearing activity, it also improves bone density. Running is also something most of us can do with little effort and cost – all we need to do is lace up our shoes and open the door!
Given the numerous health benefits associated with running it’s no surprise that so many people are clocking up so many miles on their feet. Unfortunately they’re also clocking up plenty of injuries along the way.
“Runners have a pretty high incidence of injury,” says Dr Jinger Gottschall, Associate Professor of Kinesiology at Penn State and long-time running enthusiast. “And many of these injuries have a lot to do with not properly addressing muscular imbalance.”
That is where symmetry comes in.
Gottschall explains that running really is a three dimensional activity and, while your legs are moving forward on one plane, the movement of your arms and torso is also important for force production and energy minimization. “When you’re moving in this way it’s important to be symmetrical because a single leg is in contact with the ground at a time, supporting body weight,” she says. “If one leg is dominant at any particular joint you produce more force or absorb more impact. As a result the muscles on the non-dominant side are not as strong and the joints on the dominant side are wearing down.”
Not only do you face greater risk of injury, it causes unnecessary energy output – which makes for a real challenge with it comes to unleashing your true potential.
Asymmetry can be due to many possible conditions; pelvic (hip) rotation, arthritis at the knee, and greater strength of the left/right ankle muscles are just some of the common causes of imbalance. Most imbalance occurs between the knee and the ankle – but it’s certainly not limited to this area.
How to find out if you’re dealing with asymmetry
- Identify if you have pain on a single side, or if you notice increased tightness on a single side when stretching – this is a sure sign of asymmetry
- Bring awareness to your foot strike pattern to see whether you land more heavily on one foot or spend more time on the ground with one leg.
- Get a friend to film you running at a steady state speed (with the camera angle either directly in front of you or behind). Watch the footage and look for any differences between your legs in terms of how they land and take off.
- If you suspect a large amount of asymmetry or feel pain and/or tightness on one side it’s a good idea to be evaluated by a physical therapist; they will help determine any specific muscle weakness.
What can you do to alleviate asymmetry?
Some suggest strength work, such as single legs squats, can help the issue, but that’s just part of the picture.
Gottschall recommends supplementing regular running with a low weight, high repetition full-body weight training workout. “It’s the ideal way to strengthen the muscles around the joints, and not just in your legs. Even biceps curls and dead rows are helpful because your elbows are flexed during running and strong upper body posture is helpful for endurance events.”
Gottschall adds that introducing integrated core training is a very smart move. “It can be extremely beneficial in terms of single leg strength for symmetry, deep hip muscle training for knee alignment, and abdominal training for efficient force transmission.
The final piece of the puzzle is dedicating time to the stretching and lengthening of muscles. “A class like BODYFLOW will help reduce injury risk, helping train the core and stretch the working leg muscles.”