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Why Asymmetry Might Not Be As Bad As They Say

Is there validity behind changing strides or landing patterns? How much does symmetry actually matter?

If you have ever watched the pro-runners on a run, you no doubt have taken notice of their impeccable form and sprightly biomechanics. And in the process, may have found yourself thinking, “I need to run like that.” Or maybe you’ve heard runners talk about their stride in regards to trying to land more on the forefoot or re-train it so that they are no longer heel strikers.

But is there validity behind changing strides or landing patterns? Is there a reason why your gait may need to be altered or your cadence reformed? Maybe, but also, when it comes to running, there’s one thing to keep in mind: chances are you don’t need to focus on fixing something that isn’t broken.

Running gait is the running pattern a particular runner displays, including stride length, landing position, time in the air and several other factors, which are dictated by one’s biomechanics. Part of this is cadence, the number of steps per minute that a runner takes during a run.

Cadence has shown in repeated studies that it is one of the few variables researchers and therapists can reliably use and alter to help a runner reduce injury risk. Increasing cadence can help reduce loading and force, downgrading the force on the joints and hence reducing the chance that a runner suffers injuries as a result. In the process of making these changes, a runner’s gait will likely change as well.

And while focusing on cadence as a variable to lead change and reduce injury is supported by the research, that doesn’t mean that runners and coaches necessarily focus on that metric alone, especially when it comes to helping an athlete continuously plagued by injury. Many athletes get caught up in the aesthetics of their running, assuming that fixing their form so that it looks good visually–and like the pros–will surely lead to it reducing injury and improving performance. In particular, runners look at symmetry, making sure each foot lands the same as the other, that the body looks symmetrical when running, and that each side is lined up and looking the same.

A recent study in October, however, showed some interesting results when it comes to symmetry in runners. Essentially it found that symmetry doesn’t necessarily matter, and that chasing aesthetically-pleasing running images, like those we see posted on Instagram, may be doing more harm than good.

The study looked at a set of runners who completed a 10,000 meter distance on a treadmill while researchers tracked their reaction force, gait variability and inner leg symmetry. The aim of the study was to address whether focusing on altering a runner’s symmetry (i.e. removing any tendencies that made them asymmetrical) could be used as a reliable means to reduce injury.

The result? Most athletes were asymmetrical for at least one variable, and this is not an uncommon occurrence amongst athletes. Given that many athletes are asymmetrical, researchers concluded that for practitioners to chase symmetry as a treatment method of injury is neither effective nor warranted: if it isn’t problem, don’t fix it.

If you’re sitting there as an injured runner, berating yourself for how it could have been prevented if only you were a toe striker, or if only you listened to your coach when they said to stand up taller and stop letting your left shoulder hunch inward, good news: that’s probably not the cause of your injury.

And in that regard, it’s not likely going to be what fixes it. Instead focusing on gait retraining, cueing vertical oscillation and increasing cadence have all been shown as reliable methods of injury treatment and are a much better use of your time than worrying about how symmetrical you look when you run. Because we are all a little asymmetrical.