Monday, March 12, 2012

Symmetry: Obsession vs. Reality

After a glorious weekend of 60+ degree weather and sunshine, barefoot season is officially upon us!  I had a breakthrough 9.25 mile run along the Mississippi on Saturday morning in my Five Fingers, clocking in at a 7:21 mile pace, which is 40 seconds faster per mile than my 7.5 mile run a couple weeks ago! It was thoroughly enjoyable, but my right side hip and knee were hitched up, causing some issues in the second half of the run. I've been trying to solve this issue in the last few weeks in particular, but it's been something that has occurred on and off since I started minimalist running. I know that this is partly a running mechanics issue, but I'm convinced that it's also due to the wonky body I'm working with.

For a long time now I've been obsessed with the notion of symmetry in my body in regard to achieving optimal athletic performance. I've felt that if I can find a way to balance things out, many of the issues I've had in the past will melt away. I'm very aware of the imbalances between the left and right sides of my body through experiences with rolfing and physical therapy, and just in looking at myself and feeling how my body moves on one side or the other. For instance, my right shoulder is a little higher and sucked in closer to my body than the left, my left hip is anteriorly rotated which I can feel in my normal walking gait, and my abs and lower back muscles function differently from one side to the other when I do the same side-isolated exercise on both sides. Now, this is not uncommon, and I won't consider myself a freak of nature yet, at least not in this capacity, but what can a person do about this, and does it really affect performance?

Most people are asymmetrical at least to some extent, be it shoulder height, hip alignment, or even nostril width and ear size. It's simply the way we are, and just like our friend above, it may help us (with super radar hearing), or it might cause issues (he'll never find a pair of headphones to fit both ears perfectly). After doing a little research, I discovered a few interesting things that apply to my incessant desire to be the best athlete possible.

Asymmetrical Nostrils Mess Up Your 800m Time

I suppose that because of my obsession I assumed that there would be plenty of research out there on symmetry and its affect on athletic performance, but I found a surprisingly small amount online. Admittedly, however, I did not delve deeply into medical journals, but rather took what Dr. Google showed me, so you'll forgive me for not engaging in a full-on medical research thesis just yet. In any case, I found two studies, one of which compared best 800m and 1500m times of fifty middle-distance runners after measuring symmetry in seven traits, including things like ear size, nostril width, and wrist width. For those of you not interested in reading the abstract, the conclusion was thus:
"We conclude that symmetry in traits such as nostrils and ears indicates good running ability."
That seems like quite a stretch, and I think the sample size needs to be increased greatly, along with actual measurements of 800m and 1500m times, but it's an interesting idea nonetheless. The second study - a literature review actually - dealt with the effects of bilateral asymmetry on running and cycling performance, risk of injury in otherwise healthy subjects, and leg preference. Although not a study in itself, it did some of the work for me, as it showed that the research on symmetry is less than robust and needs expansion. Alas, the verdict cannot yet be made, although I think I'll go measure my nostrils right now.

Not Symmetry, But Neutrality

In reading the blog by Kevin Neeld, Director of Athletic Development for Endeavor Sports Performance, he discussed symmetry as it applies to hockey players and made some interesting points that are relevant for all athletes, in my opinion. First of all, he points out that the movements hockey players make can cause asymmetries based on repetitive motions on one side or the other, such as shooting the puck from the dominant side most or all of the time. Those continual rotations with body weight on the same primary leg will cause muscles to develop differently on both sides. I would propose that this is true for many sports. For me, my many years of soccer could be a huge culprit, keeping my weight on my left leg to pass and shoot with the right. Any sport that involves shooting, kicking, or hitting from one side of the body could do this.

The second point, however, is something that I hadn't thought of before, and it has to do with what's inside of us, and no, I'm not referring to Gatorade's tagline. I'm referring to the organs in our body. Neeld goes on to note that the placement of the organs in our thoracic cavity may affect the balance of our bodies, such as the placement of the heart and pericardium on the left, the liver on the right, two lobes of the lung on the right but only one on the left, etc. No matter how hard a person works to achieve symmetry both muscularly and skeletally, you can't rearrange your organs, at least not without a Nazi doctor and some serious HIPAA violations. To this effect, Neeld supports the notion of neutrality in athletes, not symmetry, which makes a lot of sense, all things considered. So I guess I'm now working toward neutrality with my body. The question at this point, however, is how do I best go about doing that? Chiropracting? Physical Therapy? Postural restoration therapy? More rolfing? I'm interested in trying - or continuing - these forms of body work, but as they all cost money, I cannot indulge at the present moment to the extent I would like. I also feel that I must do some more research and focus on strengthening my body a bit more. One of the observations from the lit review mentioned above that I find helpful is that symmetry was improved by increasing running speed, and for cyclists, symmetry improved with greater workload. I did notice on my run on Saturday that my right leg felt better when I did some pick-ups and really opened it up, so maybe I just need to run really fast all the time. :)

Needless to say, I am still very interested in this topic and continue to pay attention to my body and how it moves. Perhaps I just need to stop obsessing and focus on getting stronger and moving more fluidly in a neutral state, even if it's not symmetrical. Neutrality, as it were, may just become a new mantra; "I am Switzerland."

On that note, I sincerely welcome your comments on the matter, and would especially love to hear from those of you in the medical community.

As the Swiss say, "zum Wohlsii!"

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