The importance of symmetry to help avoid injury
In last week’s blog we looked at how analysis of Usain Bolt’s running style had challenged the general assumption that a symmetric running gait was essential for speed in sprinting. While this particular theory on symmetry may have taken a hit from the success of the multiple Olympic champion, that is not to suggest that an attempt to achieve symmetry is now a waste of time. Having a symmetric running action – or at least making every effort to achieve it – is still vital for an athlete and one of the main reasons is that achieving this balanced style is key in preventing injuries. This issue is dealt with in The Effect of Asymmetry On Running Performance and Injury Prevention where Ian McMahan reminds us that
A lack of symmetry, that is relative differences in muscle strength, motion, flexibility, balance, and mechanics between sides of the body, is one element often highlighted as a risk factor for injury
He looks at the work of Jay Dicharry, a physical therapist and running biomechanics expert, who has written extensively on the need for symmetry:-
Running requires mobility, stability, strength, and power. While how much is enough depends on the individual, I strive to have all my athletes within 5 percent in terms of symmetry across the board
Don’t run on one leg – you have two for a reason
Dicharry’s view is that asymmetry does not in itself cause injury but it leads to issues in running gait that can cause injuries. The difficulty in assessing problems is that at times asymmetry-related problems may occur in the other side of the body, as he explains:-
Sometimes it’s a runner’s poor right hip stability that allows their knee to rotate excessively, and that drives their chronic right knee pain. But other times, their poor right hip stability may introduce an imbalance that actually winds up in a limp and thus stressing the other leg, causing symptoms in the left side
While he acknowledges that our own physical make-up in terms of strength of one side of the body or part of the body have an influence on symmetry he feels that measures can be taken to address this problem.
It’s not OK to simply take note of these differences. Runners should take time to improve them if they hope to influence injury risk and performance … I don’t advocate running on one leg, you have two of them for a reason
Take action to improve running gait
The importance of taking positive action to develop a more symmetric running gait is highlighted in
Gait Retraining: Rehabilitating and Reducing the Recurrence of Running Specific Injuries which outlines research by Dr Irene Davis of the Spaulding National Running Center at Harvard University that gait retraining can be effective in rehabilitating certain injuries. Two studies were carried out on different individuals using different methods of analysis and illustrated that pain was eliminated by making adjustments to the athlete’s gait.
The above two studies, along with others, demonstrate that gait patterns can be changed. Dr. Davis points out that there is still much work to be done in this area. More research is needed to determine the optimal gait retraining protocols for the most effective results. More follow up studies are required to test the permanence of gait related changes and their influence on future injury incidence
Tips for better symmetry
The extensive research that went into helping both athletes in the aforementioned studies is not available to most athletes outside the elite category, but for those who want to take measures to improve their gait and reduce the risk of injury there are many options available. Among those offering expert advice is Jay Dicharry in 3 Keys To Running With Better Form who makes the following recommendations.
1. Keep your stride tight
You want to land as close as you can to your body for a given speed. Everyone is worried about cadence – and cadence matters to a degree – but what’s more important is your stride length. If you’re running at a slower pace, you will have a shorter stride length and as running speed increases, your stride length should increase as well. Think of your body like a pendulum: As that stride length increases, you want it to increase not just at the front side, but also the back side. One of the problems a lot of people make is that when they start running faster and faster, their stride starts to only increase from the front side. That’s because they don’t have a lot of hip extension. So, we’re always talking about how to get people more hip extension range – passively – and also teaching them how to use that hip extension range so you can keep that swinging pendulum close to the body.
2. Drive from the hips
From taking measurements on the people that come into our lab, we’ve found that about 82 percent of runners don’t have enough hip extension, and again, that’s a passive length, and you can get that from stretching. But our research has shown if you stretch your hip flexors, and you get more range, people don’t actually take that new range and integrate into their gait, but they think they do. So the idea is being able to use range since it’s really critical. Drive from the hips, and driving from the hips means you extend the back and don’t cheat your lumbar spine. People run into problems all the time, even those who have pretty good body awareness, and they default to bad habits. The second you break your posture alignment, you basically lose the ability to activate your hips, so we need to make sure we keep that solid.
3. Develop good tendon strength
It’s important to develop a robust tendon stiffness, and that comes from doing explosive types of drills. But to take people who have never run before and just have them jump into a bunch of explosive plyos is a great way to get people hurt.
Nobody is perfectly symmetrical but looking at your imbalances and adjusting for them can help you avoid injuries and even improve your performance.
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