Using asymmetry to your advantage: learning to acquire and accept external assistance during prolonged split-belt walking

J Neurophysiol. 2021 Feb 1;125(2):344-357. doi: 10.1152/jn.00416.2020. Epub 2020 Dec 9.


People can learn to exploit external assistance during walking to reduce energetic cost. For example, walking on a split-belt treadmill affords the opportunity for people to redistribute the mechanical work performed by the legs to gain assistance from the difference in belts' speed and reduce energetic cost. Though we know what people should do to acquire this assistance, this strategy is not observed during typical adaptation studies. We hypothesized that extending the time allotted for adaptation would result in participants adopting asymmetric step lengths to increase the assistance they can acquire from the treadmill. Here, participants walked on a split-belt treadmill for 45 min while we measured spatiotemporal gait variables, metabolic cost, and mechanical work. We show that when people are given sufficient time to adapt, they naturally learn to step further forward on the fast belt, acquire positive mechanical work from the treadmill, and reduce the positive work performed by the legs. We also show that spatiotemporal adaptation and energy optimization operate over different timescales: people continue to reduce energetic cost even after spatiotemporal changes have plateaued. Our findings support the idea that walking with symmetric step lengths, which is traditionally thought of as the endpoint of adaptation, is only a point in the process by which people learn to take advantage of the assistance provided by the treadmill. These results provide further evidence that reducing energetic cost is central in shaping adaptive locomotion, but this process occurs over more extended timescales than those used in typical studies.NEW & NOTEWORTHY Split-belt treadmill adaptation can be seen as a process where people learn to acquire positive work from the treadmill to reduce energetic cost. Though we know what people should do to reduce energetic cost, this strategy is not observed during adaptation studies. We extended the duration of adaptation and show that people continuously adapt their gait to acquire positive work from the treadmill to reduce energetic cost. This process requires longer exposure than traditionally allotted.

Keywords: locomotion; mechanical work; metabolic cost; motor adaptation; split-belt walking.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological
  • Adult
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Learning*
  • Male
  • Walking / physiology*