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Sprinters Running the Curve

By Ken Jakalski

I often tell my athletes that track running is a lot like NASCAR—run fast, turn left, repeat as necessary. But why do we turn left on a track?

The question may well be related to why we turn left in a lot of activities. Ask people to think of activities that require a left rotation, and they will usually come up with things like Roller Derby, indoor bicycle racing, baseball running, speed skating, merry-go-rounds, revolving doors, and even Hula Hoops.

But is there something unique to track that suggests left is best? We call this movement counter-clockwise. The Brits call it anti-clockwise. What we know is that almost all joggers, if given a choice of direction, choose circular routes that run counter-clockwise. For my cross country team, we run a 1.5 mile crushed limestone loop in an area forest preserve. For twenty-five years, we always turned left.

Dr Hiroshi Watanabe

Figure 1: Dr Hiroshi Watanabe

It was Professor Hiroshi Watanabe from SOKA University in California who came up with an answer while researching whether winding stairs should be designed clockwise or counter-clockwise. He noted a tendency in most of us when blindfolded to begin walking a little bit to the left. Track coaches working with developmental sprinters in Junior Olympics note this same drifting to the left, often to the consternation of LYNX timing operators who end up with two athletes in the same lane even though they didn’t start that way.

One theory is that the majority of people are right-handed, which means they are often right-footed. We also have a slightly longer right leg than left leg. These factors influence right leg dominance, which leads to a tendency to turn to the left. This left drifting may be basic to our human nature, and running counter-clockwise instinctual.

But does this theory make sense relative to what we know about movement choice in right or left dominant athletes?

All of us reveal what is often referred to as a veering tendency, or what I like to call a “rotational bias.” For multi-directional sports, determining an athlete’s rotational bias can give an opposing player an advantage. We see these kinds of biases at all levels of sport. For example, why is it so difficult for football coaches to move a player from the right side of the line to the left—or vice-versa? Why do some defensive backs break better inside or outside on the ball?

Left-Hander Syndrome

Figure 2: The cover of The Left-hander Syndrome by Stanley Coren

Stanley Coren notes that the vast majority of right-handers like to turn right while the majority of left-handers prefer to turn left. “Other more formal studies have confirmed that left and right handers have different turning tendencies. For example, when asked to turn around on the spot, right-handers have a natural tendency to rotate their bodies to the right, resulting in a clockwise pirouette, while left-handers rotate more naturally to the left, resulting in a counterclockwise turn.”

Coren offers the following analysis, which is important for those of us who coach athletes in multi-directional sports. “It is not surprising that left-handers, always forced in the direction away from natural counter-clockwise running tendencies, are more apt to make mistakes or to be slower or less graceful in their body movements.”

In other words, forcing an athlete to move in the opposite direction of his or her rotational tendency or bias puts that player at a disadvantage. How might a coach determine these kinds of rotational tendencies? We can’t always just assume right-handers will go right, and left-handers left. Some are what researchers refer to as cross dominant. Others can easily rotate right or left without betraying a bias or appearing awkward. These are usually the great defensive backs in football.

I have my athletes kneel on both knees facing away from me. I stand about ten meters back and tell them that when they hear the clap of my hands, they are to stand up, turn and run toward me as fast as they can. You will quickly see their rotational bias. And you will spot an inherent movement problem that these athletes aren’t even aware they are committing.

For example, an athlete might turn to his or her left, but lift the left leg first, effectively “blocking” the rotation to the left. If you see they are consistent in turning to the left or right, have them turn the other way on the clap command and watch how they respond.

I have another way of spotting an athlete’s rotational bias. It involves one of my favorite childhood chase games I call “Wolf, wolf, what time is it.” There are several variations of this game around the world, but the concept is the same. A wolf (the chaser) walks forward in front of a pack of sheep, who also walk forward with the wolf, but about five meters behind. As they are all walking forward, the sheep ask, “Wolf, wolf, what time is it?” The wolf then says any time of day. However, when he says “twelve o’clock,” he must turn and chase the sheep in order to capture one of them before they all get back to “glue” or the starting line. Monitoring these chases involves what I refer to as “spotting a neural tell.

I watch the “wolf” and note his or her tendency to rotate either right or left. If a fairly accomplished athlete prefers to turn right, I know with certainty that he will only turn to the right when his left foot is forward. In other words, “twelve o’clock” will only be called out on a left-foot landing.

At this point, I enter the game. I become the sheep and walk with the wolf five meters behind. I tell my athletes that I will never be caught—even at my age. I say this with certainty because I pre-load and anticipate the wolf saying “twelve o’clock” whenever the left foot is forward.

Video 1: Dr. Ken Clark of SMU tries Wolf with the athletes he trains. Note the neural tell in video.

This game can be a fun and enjoyable form of training. Athletes will often learn to respond to the sound (when the wolf says “twelve”), but the best athletes might on their own figure out their opponents “neural tell.” When they can do this, we can say that they have truly learned to “Rock Around the Clock.”

One final note on left turning tracks…

The IAAF Rule 163.1 states that the “direction of running shall be left-hand inside.” However, this has not always been the case. The 1896 and 1906 Olympic Games in Athens and 1900 Olympics Games in Paris ran clockwise. However, from 1908 to the present the Games have been run “left-hand inside.”

1896 Olympic Games in Athens

Figure 3: 1896 Olympic Games in Athens

Please share this article so others may benefit.



Coren, Stanley. The Left-hander Syndrome: The Causes and Consequences of Left-handedness. New York: Free, 1992. Print.


  • Dave Hazlett says:

    Love your insights. Never articulated any of this to myself, but upon seeing it revealed, it makes sense.
    If you had told me about the left foot indicator when I was a kid, I would have worked to eliminate it from my steps, just for sport.
    Do you have a take on why most righties prefer to launch off their left foot, put that foot forward when surfing or skate boarding? Also, does breaking of the dominant arm during the 8 -15 year range (repeatedly) allow for a greater opportunity for ambidexterity?

    • Ken Jakalski says:

      Hi Dave!
      Thanks for your comments. There are all kinds of methods that coaches use to determine the “dominant” or strong leg.–often believing that the strong leg is always the kicking leg. I like to think of athletes as having a”quick leg” and what I refer to as the “anchor leg” or base of support.
      Right handed sprinters will often start with the left foot in the front block. Right handed pole vaulters will take off on their left leg.
      The easiest way to test for the anchor foot is to have an athlete stand on a staircase. Tell the athlete to shut his or her eyes, and then take one step down. The quick side will be the one they “feel” with or move to step down. The anchor foot is the one they keep on the stair tread–hence the anchor side or base. When they are unsure of the risk in stepping down with their eyes closes, they will choose what they feel is their most stable base while allowing the quick side to feel for the next tread down.
      Another easy test is the jab step or “paradoxical foot.” If athletes put both feet on a line, and are told to sprint forward as fast as they can when they hear you clap your hands, the foot they jab back with (which is what they will do) is the quick foot. Jabbing back is the only way they can get forward of their center of mass.
      If they try to sprint forward without jabbing, it looks like they are stuck in Jell-O. And if you hold them long enough before clapping your hands, they will fall forward, because that is the only means they have for shifting their mass forward.

  • REJ says:

    I use my right & left legs & arms differently for different activities. I prefer my right hand to write & use scissors but either hand to eat. I use both my right & left arms in tennis so I don’t have to cross my body. I bat either handed but catch with a left glove. I have my right foot front on starting blocks for consistency. I blame my family – one parent & one older sib right handed & other parent & other older sib left handed. Round kitchen table. Left handed dad taught me most sports.

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