Right-leg amputee athletes may have an edge over left-leg amputees

Which leg a sprinter is missing could spell the difference between a medal and a non-podium finish – on a curved track, anyway. Belinda Smith reports.

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200-metre and 400-metre races are run counterclockwise over a partially curved track. How does this affect single-leg amputee athletes?
Helene Wiesenhaan / Getty Images

Paralympians with a right-leg "blade" may have a 0.2-second advantage over a 200-metre race compared to those with left-leg prostheses, a new study suggests.

A University of Colorado study, published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, found left-leg amputee athletes ran 3.9% slower around a curved track than right-leg amputees.

This could mean the difference between a gold medal or a non-podium finish, says lead researcher Paolo Taboga.

So why the imbalance?

Unlike 100-metre sprints, which are run in a straight line, 200-metre and 400-metre races are run counterclockwise around a partially curved track.

"We wanted to see what happen for these athletes with unilateral amputation when they run on a curve," Taboga says.

So he and his colleagues flew amputee and non-amputee sprinters, including those from the German and US Paralympic teams, to Colorado.

They were analysed sprinting 40 metres in a straght line, and around a curved track clockwise and counterclockwise.

Even Taboga was surprised at the extent of the findings.

Athletes sprinting with their prosthesis on the inside of a curve were 3.9% slower than athletes running with their prosthesis on the outside. "It was a measureable difference," Taboga says.

US sprinter Richard Browne won the Men's 200m T44 Final at the IPC Athletics World Championships in October last year. Did his right prosthesis give him the edge over those with left-leg prostheses? – Helene Wiesenhaan / Getty Images

While the track used in the study was curved with a radius of 17.2 metres, much more pronounced than the standard athletics track curvature of 36.5 metres, the 3.9% difference translates to around 0.2 seconds over a 200-metre race.

As all single-leg amputee Paralympians tend to produce less force when running in a straight line, this probably also translates to less force on a curve, Taboga says. And when an athlete's amputated leg was on the inside, they slowed more, "so you have two limiting factors that sum up".

So what can race organisers do to level the playing – or running – field? While his study didn't examine how double-amputee athletes fare on curves, Taboga suggests left-leg amputees should be placed in the outermost lanes.

In fact, when he shared his findings with his subjects, "a lot of athletes with a left leg amputation said, 'oh yes, when I have to run on curves I don't really like running in lane one or two [the two innermost lanes]'".

  1. http://jeb.biologists.org/content/219/6/851
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