Do you have a balance problem?
I was 44 years when I noticed that running downhill on trails had suddenly become unsafe. The uneven surface was jarring. The switchback turns were too tight. The narrow paths and precipitous drops at trail’s edge screamed, “Danger, danger, danger!” I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. My leg strength was good. My eyesight was fine. And changing shoe models didn’t have any effect. Then I got plantar fasciitis. As part of my therapy, I performed some simple balance exercises. The PF got better. And lo and behold, so did my trail running.
Turns out I’d never had a trail-running problem. I’d had a balance problem.
By the time we turn 40—or 50, 60, 70, or 80—most of us have spent decades letting inanimate objects manage our balance for us. We walk in stable, flat-bottomed shoes; spend 50-75 percent of each day sitting in chairs or sleeping on beds; run on even surfaces like sidewalks and roads—or, worse yet, on completely stationary treadmills, elliptical machines and stair climbers. Simply put, we’ve spent decades deactivating two systems required for efficient movement through our environment:
Balance: Balance allows you to stand or move without toppling to the ground. Think that’s easy? Then watch a child learning to walk. Or consider this: It took tens of millions of dollars and decades of research to create, in 2013, a two-legged robot—Boston Dynamic’s Atlas—that could actually walk over rough terrain. When you run, you not only have to stay upright, you have to do it while leaping from one foot to the other.
Proprioception: This is your body’s ability to track its position relative to the outside world. Proprioception lets you walk without looking at your feet. It lets you type without watching the keys. Proprioceptive nerves relay position, tension and stretch sensations to your central nervous system. Your CNS then triggers correct muscle contractions to hold or alter your body’s position.
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Like most things physiological, if you don’t use your balance and proprioception, you lose them. But lucky for you, they’re easy to revive and then to improve. In fact, a 2006 study on football players found that just four weeks spent balancing on each leg for five minutes, five days a week, reduced ankle sprains by 77 percent.
Masters runners looking to improve their balance and proprioception would do well to start with the following six exercises.
Balance On One Leg
This is the easiest balance exercise. Beginners should wear shoes. As your balance improves, go with bare feet.
Instruction: Stand straight with your knees slightly bent. Lift one foot off the floor and hold the position for 30-60 seconds (or less if 30 seconds is too difficult). To work proprioception, close your eyes while balancing—but open them immediately if your balance falters! As you improve, straighten your lifted leg behind you while bending down to touch your toes.
Balance On One Leg With Ball
Once your nervous system masters simple balance and proprioception, increase the challenge by adding a ball or other object to the exercise.
Instruction: Balance on one foot while holding a ball (or other object). Start with the ball in front of you, then move it over your head, touch it to your toes, hold it over each shoulder, etc. All movement should be smooth and controlled. There is no time limit to this exercise. Let fatigue be your guide.
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Two-Leg Balance on the Wobble Board
The wobble board prepares your nervous system for the instability you’re likely to encounter on trails and other uneven terrain. It’s also been shown to reduce the reoccurrence of ankle sprains by 50 percent.
Instruction: Stand with both feet centered on the wobble board (your center of gravity should be over the middle of the board). Balance for up to a minute. Keep your back straight with a slight bend in your knees.
Balance with a Stability Trainer
Stability trainers (like the Thera-Band model pictured) automatically create instability. The surface wobbles beneath your foot, requiring advanced and constant nervous system adjustment. This is a great exercise for both balance and proprioception.
Instruction: Balance on one foot while standing on the stability trainer for 30-60 seconds. Use shoes at first, then switch to bare feet as your stability improves. Beginners can hold onto a chair—and if you do this exercise with closed eyes, definitely use a chair.
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This simple exercise reengages neglected neuromuscular pathways controlling movement of your ankles and feet. Don’t be surprised if, at first, you have a hard time making full circles.
Instruction: Lie on your back with one leg straight, toes pointed upward, and one leg raised and bent 90 degrees at the knee. Prop your raised leg with your hands, then make circular orbits with your foot—ten rotations clockwise, then ten counterclockwise. Make sure to limit motion to your ankle and foot.
Running on grass or soft sand is terrific training for proprioception, and it feels great!
Instruction: Run easy on grass or soft sand. The uneven surface forces your body to rely on proprioception. But be forewarned: If you’re not accustomed to barefoot running, the risk of injury can be high. Run no more than a half-mile for initial sessions, then build to a mile once or twice a week.
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About The Author:
Pete Magill is the fastest-ever American age 50+ at 5K (15:01) and 10K (31:11), the 2013 USA Masters Cross Country Runner of the Year, and the author of Build Your Running Body (The Experiment, 2014). Learn more about Pete at his website, PeteMagill.com.