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