View Full Version : summary - counterclockwise running tracks

Matt Taylor
04-27-2003, 11:32 PM
Thanks to everyone who replied to my post on counter-clockwise (CCW) tracks. It is perhaps arbitrary the choice of clockwise/counter clockwise track and if clockwise was chosen I would still ask why are tracks clockwise (CW).

Interestingly during the ancient Olympics the track for both foot races and chariot races was straight with a turning post at either end. Homer recommended to his son that during a chariot race he should turn toward the left at the post. Roman chariot races at the circus maximus were performed on an oval track in a counter clockwise direction. The stronger horses were put on the left side. Coming upto date, NASCAR turn CCW and the left tyres show the most wear (presumably this is the opposite for AUSCAR - CW turn).

With regards to gait the left leg has been seen as support leg and the right leg functions as propulsion - in right handed/footed subjects (Sadeghi et al, 1997), This may offer an advantage turning CCW - but obviously coincidental with the design of running tracks. It would perhaps be interesting to see if CCW or CW turns have an affect on the biomechanics and performance of speed running in subjects who do not use athletic tracks.

anyway, here are the responses, thanks to all.

**********Original Posting*****************

This is just purely for interest, but does anyone know why athletic track events take place counter clockwise and therefore always turn to the left.

I heard that it is because the heart is a little bit located in the left side of the thoracic column. Turning to the left during running may facilitate human coordination to achieve something. I am not sure about this, but it is probably to achieve better balance, or something similar.

Daniel FONG
MSc student - Chinese University of Hong Kong


I emphasize that this is only a hunch, but to me it seems quite obvious: Counterclockwise running means that the right leg runs a longer distance
than the left leg, and thus probably performs more mechanical work. In most persons the right leg is stronger than the left, so running in the clockwise
direction would simply be slower and cause more fatigue.

A COMPLETELY different perspective: In the northern hemisphere, all motion tends to "turn right" because of the earth's rotation. In the suthern hemisphere it tends to "turn left". Thus, south of the Equator the fastestr running will be performed by a "right-legged" athlete running counterclockwise, while at our norhern altitudes the optimum would be a "left-legged" athlete running clockwise. The influence of the earth's rotation is probably negligible in comparison with the right va. left-leggedness, but should be measurable. It is supposed to be observable
on railroad wheels; the right-hand wheels will wear faster (and measurably
so) than the left.

Intriguing thoughts :-)


just a guess, and probably has nothing to do with reality--
we define positive angular motion as counterclockwise (and have for who
knows how many millennia)....

Gary Christopher
Texas Woman's University


Simple question, but very complex to answer. Most of the speed contests (running, horse and dog races, skating, cycling) go counterclockwise, and this
has probably been the case since the ancient Olympic games already. What we do know (own research, not published yet) is that humans show a preference
for turning leftwards in unconstrained conditions. What we do not know is whether this phenomenon is the result of nature (we prefer to turn leftwards,
so we build our equipment to suit this goal ) or nurture (al the accommodation is designed to turn leftwards, so we adapted ourselves into this
Matthieu Lenoir
Dept. of Movement and Sport Sciences
University of Gent, Belgium
Do you think that track events go clockwise in the Southern hemisphere?

Ha, ha.....

Mary Payton
ESH Engineer
Edwards AFB, CA, USA

This link doesn't provide hard scientific evidence for the answer of your
quetion, but surely some interesting perspectives to answers based upon
tradition, society, 'right or left brain', reading direction, etc. Hope it



I seem to think that the Cambridge University running track was clockwise
for some considerable time - up to the 1960s.
Gordon Clapworthy

Great question!

I assume it is because counter clockwise is considered to be "positive"...

Interested in the reasoning as well,
Matt O'Brien
Brush up your Cicero, or your Latin at least, since I suspect the practice
dates from the time of the Circus Maximus (built 6th c. BC), or earlier.

Bill R

Am guessing a 400 m circular track is preferable to a straight one in terms
of being able to confine it within an arena, as well as the possibility of
running any distance no matter how large, and still being less than 200 m
from where you started.

The only question then, GIVEN that it is a circular track, is WHICH
direction to travel in. It could be argued that one direction had to be
arbitrarily chosen and that there is no other explanation (remembering of
course that if it were a clockwise course you could well be asking the same
question!). However, my only theory, as to why there might be a justifiable
choice, is that it may be preferable to have one's stronger leg on the
outside (most people being rightside-dominant) to propel them in the
necessary circular motion with the stronger leg. You may have heard about
people in the desert with no frame of reference, walking in a large circle
when trying to walk straight... this is due to the dominance of the stronger
leg and the consequently longer strides it takes. Maybe tracks are run in
ACW direction to complement this natural tendency.

Niall, Dublin

Hi Matt!

The "left spin" can be observed everywhere-from the planets going around the sun, in humans, architecture, birds, snails, .....

An interesting article:

The Dominant Leg

Summary of an article by Simone Kosog in the science section of the 'Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin' 1999.

Robert Schleip


Back to the article collection

People who are lost in the desert tend to walk in circles with a left spin, i.e. counter-clockwise.

Most or our supermarkets are organized the same way: entrance is on the right, the cashier on the left. Studies have shown that customers tend to feel slightly stressed - increased cardiac pulse, elevated blood pressure, slightly faster walking pace - and buy less when they have to walk in the opposite direction.

Same on the sports field: most track and field sports - from the 400 meter distance runner to the hurdle racer, they all run towards their left. Even the everyday jogger tends to run counter clockwise around the field or lake if he has free choice.

Scientists agree that most of us are not only right handed but also right legged. We kick the ball with the right leg, and if falling forward we catch ourselves more often with the right leg. The right leg is more muscular and makes longer steps in walking, according to Prof. Onur Güntürkün, biopsychologist at the Ruhr university at Bochum/Germany. "It is only a very small difference of a few millimeters, but they are adding up.".

Easy experiment to prove this: walk in closed eyes on the same spot in the room. After a while most of us will tend to turn towards the left.

Yet some of us are left legged. In soccer that carries the advantage that the opponent has more difficulties when trying to dribble the ball around you.

Paradoxically the dominant leg - which tends to be stronger and make longer steps - is most often a bit shorter. Biologist Siegfried Wachtel says that this is not at all surprising since our heavy usage tends to wear it down and shorten it more .

An old guideline in the military infantry makes sense: If a low airplane comes appears from behind on the left side, it will usually not be dangerous, since if it wanted to attach it would have to fly in a rightward curve - which it probably won't do. Yet if it appears from the right side behind, it is better to take cover quickly.

For most people their strength is generally accumulated on the same side; i.e. right handed people are most often also right legged. The most common exception are people which are right legged and left handed, according to the scientists Stern and Schilf who examinded almost 20 million school children.

This left twist effect seems to be generally apparent in animals. Circus horses enter traditionally the arena on the right and circle left wards. Foresters know that a wounded deer will always run away left wards, even if the closest forest is to its right. Even bees tend to circle leftwards when they spiral upwards to gain height in the air.

The basic driver behind this phenomenon seems to be the fact that all cells in nature are composed of amino acids which have a left spin. Chemists can manufacture amino acids with a right spin, yet we can't use them. Apparently both types of amino acids existed in the primordial soup at the beginning of life hundreds of million years ago. Yet life developed only from those with a left spin. The favorite theory is that at that time - when the earth did not yet have the protective ozone shield - radioactive rays from the cosmos did more harm to the amino acids with a right spin. Yet why those with a left spin would be more protected - if at all - is still a mystery.


Additional remark (by Robert Schleip): The science magazine 'Smithonian' had an article a few years ago (which unfortunately I can't find nor do I know the year or issue) about studies of leg dominance in chimpanzees and humans. Interestingly they found that the location of the language centre in the cortex tends to follow the dominant leg, rather than the dominant arm. I.e. if the dominant leg is on the right side (which is organized mostly from the left cortex) then the language centre of the brain will be most likely at the same left side of the cortex which is also occupied with the movements and sensations of that dominant leg. Their explanation was that the dominant leg apparently plays a major role in our antigravity stability and locomotion during the day and thereby might engage the cortex more than the question which hand is used more dominantly.

Matthias Weinberger
Physical Therapist

Matt Small comment on the below. I know all this may be a bit of word play however...The left or counterclockwise spinning of planets etc depends on observation orientation i.e. what one calls up. Ex. The earth rotates left when obseving "down" on the north pole and right when observing "up" on the south pole. Also is a counterclockwise spin a left spin or a right spin since it is generally designated positive in a right handed coordinate system? John


I am particularly interested in this topic. It dosen't make sense to run in
the same direction (counter cloclkwise) since the laoding response on each
side of the body will be different; that is, the left lower limb will
exhibit more pronation and the right will exhibit more supination. The
discussion of amino acids is fascinating, but water in this hemisphere
rotates in the opposite direction to water in the northern hemisphere. Not
much help I am afraid but I would appreciate a summary of responses if

Noel Lythgo (B.Ed., Grad. Dip. Ex. & Sport Sc., M. App. Sc.)
Australian Catholic University
School of Exercise Science
Mr. Taylor,

I received this forward regarding your inquiry into running around
athletic tracks counterclockwise. In high school I did a science
project inquiring into precisely this subject.

Obviously, I brought to my inquiry all the skill of a high school
junior, which is to say very little. My recollection of my findings is
the following:
1) My minimal research did not uncover any explanation for this
2) My data from a sample of about forty middle school children running
both clockwise and counterclockwise around their gym showed the children
tended to run faster counterclockwise. I believe I had insufficient
data to inquire into any correlation to handedness and direction.

If you might find it helpful, I could attempt to locate the paper I
wrote at the time.




To unsubscribe send SIGNOFF BIOMCH-L to LISTSERV@nic.surfnet.nl
For information and archives: http://isb.ri.ccf.org/biomch-l