I was talking with a young lady recently who had a strange running problem – after a few miles her right foot would start to go numb – always her right foot and never her left. She’d tried lots of different shoes, socks, and other ideas, but nothing helped, and it was severely limiting her running. Pondering her dilemma reminded me that even though running may seem like a totally symmetrical phenomenon (it’s pretty hard to get away from left, right, left, right, left….) the reality can be more complex.
Some years ago I was plagued with a wonky left knee. Every time I ran it got sore and sometimes swollen – not enough to keep me from running, but enough to hold down my enjoyment and therefore my mileage and progress. Since I’m flat-footed, I tried arch-supports and they helped somewhat, but it wasn’t until I ran with the arch support in my left shoe only that the problem seemed to lessen. (Eventually, after a couple of years running and cross-training, I got to where I don’t seem to need that support any more, but it took a one-sided solution to get me there.)
Anatomists tell us that human bodies are never perfectly symmetrical; many people have one leg slightly longer than the other, bones more or less curved, or one knee may angle differently. Lots of us have bunions, callouses or other features that differ between our two feet – some even fit a different size or width from side to side!
Perfect symmetry is just as hard to find outside the body too: if you happen to run on roads, you may have noticed the pavement is usually ‘crowned,’ higher in the center of the road, so water drains to the shoulder. That means if you run against traffic, your right foot is treading a slightly higher surface than your left. It’s not much of a difference, but miles of running means tens of thousands of steps, each one of which puts slightly different loads and stresses on the two sides of your body, maybe even translating up into how you hold your torso or head. Pound your body asymmetrically like that for hour after hour and day after day and you may well generate a chronic pain that seems to come from nowhere.
Run on a track instead, and you may be curving to one side a lot more than the other, which could cause its own issues. An Indy race car’s chassis is specifically designed for counter-clockwise turning, a runner’s is not!
The point of all this is: If you have a running condition that affects one side of your body differently than the other, it may help to look for asymmetrical causes, and consider asymmetrical solutions.
p.s. – in the case of that young lady, I offered two suggestions:
– experiment with different types of insoles and inserts, but in one foot only; try something in one side one day, then another day try the same device in the other…
– check out asymmetrical breathing. Instead of an equal number of steps on every inhale and exhale, make it three steps inhale and two out, or two and three, or any other pattern that totals to an odd number. Our core muscles do different things inhaling and exhaling, and create different stresses and tensions. If you breathe symmetrically, you’re always putting those stresses on the same side of your body. Asymmetrical breathing distributes them more equally – at least it’s worth a try!