Blame It On Evolution

By Chris Kostman

Originally written as an assignment for Walking Magazine in 1993 or 1994, but they never published it.

Thanks to a subtle wrinkle in human evolution known as universal pelvic tilt, biomechanical ills such as leg length discrepancy, uneven gait, and debilitating posture may all be facts of life in the modern world. Or so goes the theory of Lee Cole and a growing band of athletes and researchers in San Francisco, CA, who thankfully have a solution at hand.

Cole theorizes that "this universal condition is functional leg length discrepancy caused by the pelvis of almost every one of us being tipped higher on the right." (Note that this is functional leg length discrpancy, not anatomical leg length discrepancy.) And that we can probably blame on evolution. You see, a functionally longer left leg allows a right-handed person to use the left leg as a brace for throwing objects (as in hunting before and in football today) and when using tools and weapons. But while a functionally longer left leg is essentially universal, right-handedness is not, so left-handed people are doubly challenged by this anatomical condition. More importantly, this functional leg length discrepancy is out of place in the modern world with its symetrical walking surfaces and footwear. Additionally, leg length discrepancy may increase over time and be the cause of grossly debilitating gait, posture, and comfort as people age. So what was good for Australopithecus is not so good for us today.

Cole's cure? He finds that a simple lift added to the length of a shoe's right sole will correct for the problem. Of course right skates and right cycling shoes should also feature the lift and Cole sells the riser accessory or shoe customization under the name "3/32 Solution." Cole himself was the original rolling test lab for this concept, bringing himself back from having a crippled and useless left leg to participating in 85 mile skating races. Dr. Nancy Byl, the Director of the University of California at San Francisco Graduate Program in Physical Therapy believes that "his recovery demonstrates the plasticity of the nervous system and the impact functional movement can have on retraining and reeducating neural processing. Correcting the leg length discrepancy ... apparently served to equalize the forces in both legs that encouraged him to work harder and harder at using the affected left leg more normally. It is quite conceivable that the sensory stimulation and the motor output allowed him to change the somatosensory map of his cortex."

"He's definitely onto something for those people who have problems. It works." says Dr. Alan Bragman, an Atlata, GA, chiropractor who uses The 3/32 Solution himself for walking, running, and skating. Bragman studied leg length discrepancy in medical school and was fascinated by what he observed. Now years later, Cole's new theory brought him back to the subject and he is seeing impressive results personally and professionally.

One beneficiary of Cole's simple shoe lift is 22-year-old Stanford student Tony Wagner, who was confined to a wheelchair for fourteen years until he met Cole. After adding a 3/8" lift to Wagner's shoe, Cole taught him to walk within fifteen minutes. Some may call it a miracle, but according to Cole, it's just a simple step that "closes the gap between neurology and structure. Just close that gap with the shoe lift and balance, timing, coordination, and strength return."

Cole and his colleagues are bringing this theory and product to the mainstream by enlisting shoe companies to produce and market shoes of all types and styles with soles of unequal height. The first sign on, with shoes debuting in December of 1994, is Heller Shoes, designed by fashion designer and shoemaker Michael Heller. The line includes dress, casual, and walking shoes. Another shoe company will soon introduce golf shoes with Cole's lift.

Coles' "3/32 Solution" is a simple cure for an apparently nearly universal condition that affects all of us that walk.

To read the original article I wrote about Lee, published in City Sports, ULTRA Cycling, and Triathlete, click here.