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Dear Editor: Why do we run in an anticlockwise direction? Science offers an answer

“[…] Without being required so to do, non-track athletes (discus and hammer throwers and shot putters) also tend to turn in an anticlockwise direction. And it’s not just athletics. Many other sporting events also move from left to right, particularly those involving racing along a circuit.

“[…] Physiology has its say. Running in an anticlockwise direction, you make only left turns. The human body is slightly heavier on the left side because of the location of the heart. Thus, when running anticlockwise, the body tends to incline ever so slightly towards the left, giving the runner better control and increased speed…”

The following Letter to the Editor, a response to the Early Bird column of Friday 15 April headlined ‘Oh for the good old days…’, was submitted to Wired868 by Dr Clarena Spencer of Tunapuna:

Photo: Joggers exercise in an anticlockwise direction.

My group regularly completes our early-morning walks at different popular venues in east and west Trinidad, including the Eddie Hart Savannah. There, we too have observed that most people either walk or jog in an anticlockwise direction.

After one member of the group reported being told by a doctor that it is healthier to walk in a clockwise direction, I began to undertake my own research, starting at the top of the world…

With the exception of Venus and Uranus, all the planets in the Milky Way rotate in an anticlockwise direction. The Earth rotates on its axis and revolves anticlockwise around the sun. The sun rotates anticlockwise on its axis, and all the major moons except Triton orbit their planet in an anticlockwise direction.

It’s not quite that simple, I’m afraid. If you were able to position yourself above the North Pole and look down at the Earth, you’d see it rotating in a counter clockwise direction. But if you somehow contrived to get under the South Pole and look up, you’d see our planet turning from left to right, clockwise. Perspective, point of view matters.

So Milky or Murky?

Photo: The answer is in there, somewhere…

It doesn’t seem to matter to the International Association of Athletics Federation. Their Rule 163.2 stipulates that ‘The direction of running shall be left-hand inside’. Interestingly, however, without being required so to do, non-track athletes (discus and hammer throwers and shot putters) also tend to turn in an anticlockwise direction.

And it’s not just athletics. Many other sporting events also move from left to right, particularly those involving racing along a circuit. Baseball, cycling, horse racing, motor racing and speed skating, to name only those, all move along an anticlockwise path.

Physiology has its say. Running in an anticlockwise direction, you make only left turns. The human body is slightly heavier on the left side because of the location of the heart. Thus, when running anticlockwise, the body tends to incline ever so slightly towards the left, giving the runner better control and increased speed.

Furthermore, there are many more right-handers than there are left-handers. Physiologists have found that right-handed persons tend to have stronger muscles in their right leg than in their left. So, when you’re moving anticlockwise around a track, your more powerful leg is making longer strides on the outside, thus facilitating the turns and allowing for greater momentum and speed.

Photo: Arima North Secondary footballers sprint around the field in an anticlockwise direction during a training session in July 2019.
(Copyright Annalicia Caruth/ Wired868)

Anatomical support exists, too, for counter clockwise-ness. Assisted by heart suction, the superior vena cava, the body’s principal vein, carries impure or deoxygenated blood from the upper half of the body to the heart’s right atrium. The blood then flows to the lungs for purification or oxygenation and is then pumped throughout the entire body.

The centrifugal force generated by running anticlockwise is thought to facilitate the blood flow by increasing cardiac suction, which in turn helps the athlete.

Running clockwise, some say, may reduce or retard the reach of oxygenated blood to other organs of the body, thereby tiring the runner more quickly.

And there’s geographical support too. The centrifugal effect of the earth’s rotation gives an athlete running anticlockwise in the Northern Hemisphere a slight advantage, resulting in faster times. In the Southern Hemisphere, this effect is reversed, the centrifugal force causing rotating objects to accelerate away from the centre of the track.

Seen from the spectator’s vantage point, there is something to be said for anticlockwise-ness as well. When we read, our eyes move from right to left—Arabic, I am told, is an exception. So for most people, the natural way to see things is from left to right.

Photo: Race cars whizz across the track in an anticlockwise direction at the Daytona International.

In a 2007 piece titled ‘Why do athletes run around the track anticlockwise?’, Soldjablue contends that, when playing an electronic game, you lose fluidity if you play from right to left but you will find that you play far better when your team is going from left to right.

From religion comes the notion of circumambulation (from Latin circum around and ambulare to walk). Circumambulation of temples and images of deities is an integral part of the devotional practices of Buddhism and Judaism as well as Hinduism. In this last religion, as a common form of prayer, devotees circle in a clockwise direction around a shrine.

During the hajj, Muslims circumambulate the Kaaba (Islam’s most sacred site) seven times, always in an anticlockwise direction. As pilgrims residing in different countries of the world circumambulate, they move together in one direction to symbolise, in unison, their belief in and worship of the one true God, Allah.

One truly surprising claim I found in the UK Guardian. According to the writer, ‘Anticlockwise joggers will eventually succumb to an extremely painful condition known as Widder Shins’.

I could find no support for the claim.

Photo: Circumambulation in evidence as Muslims meet their hajj commitment.
(via Middle East Monitor)

Nor did I find endorsement for the view expressed by another person that jogging anticlockwise allowed him to jog more rounds than jogging clockwise. But jogging clockwise helped him lose more weight and kept his energy level throughout the day excellent.

I am in no position to confirm or deny with data the contention by Srichandra Arulappa, chief physiotherapist at SIMS Hospital in India, that a ‘figure-8 walk’ yields major fitness and health benefits.

According to him, the ‘8-shape walk method’ is supreme and gives miraculous benefits when practised daily for 15-30 minutes. He posits further that, in the figure-8 method, the entire body is twisted and all organs activated, resulting in overall good health.

This method, he says, reverses all diseases, even diabetes, headaches, digestive problems, thyroid problems, obesity, knee pains, rheumatoid arthritis and constipation.

As far as responsibility for the accuracy of his info is concerned, Arulappa is on his own. But personal experience makes it easy for me to support the view that there are psychological benefits to varying the venues and to changing the direction occasionally. I feel intuitively that alternating the directions will reduce the stress on our bodies.

Photo: Enjoying a morning walk…

So, to conclude, let’s come right back down to earth, on a purely practical level. I have it on good authority that not changing our walking shoes annually can ultimately have real implications for our gait. But the specialist who told me so stopped short of pronouncing on the effects of not changing direction from time to time.

Frankly, I’m not particularly worried about wearing out our soles. And I have grave doubts that walking the same road day after day will wear out our souls.

About Letters to the Editor

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One comment

  1. Very interesting article.

    Without much thought, I would usually follow the crowd and walk in an anticlockwise manner at Eddie Hart Savannah and Larry Gomes Stadium, however, in a clockwise manner around the Queen’s Park Savannah.

    Somehow walking opposite to the flow of traffic around the QPS felt weird.

    Hmmmm