Why do athletic tracks run counterclockwise?

At some point in human history, someone built an athletic track and then wondered in what sense the athletes should have to run. If it had really happened that way maybe History would remember a Pliny Righthanded who decided that day that the races should be run counterclockwise, but unfortunately we do not know, although it is reasonable to think that at the time (and we are talking about many centuries ago) clocks did not exist and therefore no one could have proposed running counterclockwise. In fact: think of how they would have looked at him if he had said that. “Counterclockwise in what sense? What does that mean?”

However, if you, too, have woken up in the night shouting “WHY COUNTERCLOCKWISE?”you are not alone and in the following, perhaps, you will find some answers. I say “maybe” because there is no unambiguous answer to this dilemma but only assumptions. There are things that are done a certain way and no one can really explain why, like this one.

The physiological explanation

There are at least three ways to explain in these terms why we run counterclockwise: one is related to the fact that it comes more naturally to do it like that and two to the position of the heart and blood circulation.

Which foot do you start running with? You may have never paid attention to it but it is most likely the right one. Why? Because it is natural to do so, especially for those who are right-handed. Starting with that foot it’s probably that you’ll approach the curve (which is to the left, of course, like all curves in an athletic track) with more fluency.

Another explanation is related to the position of the heart, which makes our left half “weigh” more and carry us in that direction, and especially to the circulation of blood that occurs from left to right: the centrifugal force generated by running to the left would work in favor of running in that direction.

Finally: many (not all) people’s right leg is a little longer than the left, so again, running on a constrained course feels more natural holding it outside.

And the physical or practical ones

The first of these explanations is that it is a standard: the IAAF international competitions (now World Athletics) are run counterclockwise, and therefore the athletes and female athletes who cross the finish line (and this is the practical explanation) do so coming from the left and going to the right relative to the race judges. And if you noticed that we also read left-to-rightwise (at least those who don’t write in Arabic or Japanese), you guessed it right: in a highly concentrated situation such as the judges are in, it is best not to have distracting factors, such as athletes crossing the finish line from right to left.

pu gnimmuS

No, I have not gone crazy: the title of this section is “Summing up,” but spelled backwards. Tiring to read, isn’t it? Maybe that’s why you don’t want to add to the fatigue of running a race the fatigue of doing it clockwise.

(Main image credits: Aremafoto on DepositPhotos.com)


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