The Symmetrical Solution
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Bodywork: Fitness for the Outside Athlete, November 1996
The Symmetrical Solution
Correcting your natural imbalances may just be the secret to superior fitness
At first it was merely a blister on her left foot. Lynn Doering had just taken second in the hotly contested Bermuda International 10k–her last tune-up before the 1996 Olympic marathon trials–and was out for a long run. There was nothing to bother her. Nothing but a blister. Then, imperceptibly, she began to favor her left foot. The next day her entire left leg ached.
Echoes of Doering’s plight are common, yet most outdoor athletes are unaware that having a symmetrically balanced body is important. Body symmetry, however, can be the difference between winning and losing, between superior fitness and nagging injury. “The people who are the most symmetrical tend to have the fewest injuries,” says David Martin, a physiology professor at Georgia
But even the most lopsided of us can bring our bodies toward equilibrium. Especially now–as you hit the gym this winter, whether to prepare for your summer pursuits or just to get your ski legs in shape–you can also work on bolstering your weaker side. “Being symmetrical is quite a challenge,” Martin says. “But in time, a good strength and conditioning program can put you
Injury will also exacerbate any innate or acquired weaknesses, and not surprisingly, it often occurs on your weak side. Indeed, an injury can turn your asymmetry into a self-fulfilling prophecy, which is what happened to Doering. “I’ve been an elite athlete for a number of years, so I’m always concerned that my body is developed symmetrically,” says the 34-year-old runner. “But
Yet before you undertake a regimen of one-armed push-ups, make sure you know your own asymmetries. Diagnosing your weak side is easy: Take a good, long look at your body in the mirror. Size up both sides of your body, look at your shoulders and pectoral muscles, and compare the bulk of your biceps and thighs. You can also use a cloth measuring tape to check the circumference of
The Perils of Repetition
Hips are another symmetry trouble zone, especially for women. “With their wider hips, women cyclists are particularly prone to problems,” Lawson says. “When they pedal, there’s more pronation than for men, and that leads to injury. On the weaker side, it gets worse.” Having one hip higher than the other (common for women as well as men) can cause the shorter–and usually
Problems can develop from the bottom up if your legs aren’t the same length. With every second stride during a run, the shorter leg is stretched farther than the other, which causes the hip to turn out. Meanwhile, that side of the lower back is getting slightly wrenched. Keep running that way and you’ll end up with a sore lower back, a tight hamstring, and a crooked pelvis.
Martin’s seen the results of asymmetry up close working with the likes of world champion duathlete Ken Souza, who tore the ligaments in his left knee years ago. He developed a strength imbalance, and it still affects his performance. “If one leg is off balance by even 10 percent,” Souza says, “obviously I’m going to have less output.”
To do any of this, though, you need good balance, says Kevin Moody, a trainer at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, New York. “An injury or simply favoring one side of the body can cause the nerves of your off-side to become ineffectual in controlling fine motor skills,” he says. “Balance training teaches your nerves to send and receive accurate information between
Finally, make symmetry-work a regular part of your sport-specific training. Spend a certain portion of your workout time using only your weak side, or at least concentrating on it. If you’re a swimmer, spend about 10 percent of every practice pulling one-handed with your weak arm, and when you do use both arms, make sure you breathe on both sides. If you’re a paddle-sport
Asymmetrical training is a technique that Souza still works into his routine. “In the wintertime, I’ll do one-legged sprints on the bike,” he says. “I’ll hike one leg up, spin for a few minutes, then reverse it. Since I tore those ligaments, I’ve had to do extra work to make sure that my left side is as strong as the other. I’ve tried to forget that injury, but my leg still
Cory Johnson, a frequent contributor to Bodywork, is a runner and a cyclist.