By Erica Walsh
We all use our balance while running. From running on a flat, smooth surface such as a track, to an uneven sidewalk or off road on a trail, each foot fall and push off incorporates balance. Balance is what keeps us from falling down, although we’ve all been known to take a spill or two.
Running is a series of dynamic balance exercises as we propel ourselves forward and leap from foot to foot. In order to keep ourselves upright and moving forward, we need to know where our body is and how to move it to where we want it to be. This is not something we think about and control, but rather it happens automatically through the neuromuscular system. This is also called proprioception. By improving your balance, you are strengthening your proprioception, which may lead to fewer injuries and greater force and power generation.
As you run and your foot hits the ground, it sends your brain an enormous amount of information. It is your proprioceptors that transmit this information and let your brain know how to react. With better proprioception, you have increased responsiveness. While running on uneven surfaces, you may step on a root that was camouflaged among fallen leaves, or you may hit that pothole in the road — or my personal favorite, you may trip over your own feet. It is your proprioception that makes those quick adjustments to avoid rolling an ankle, twisting a knee, or falling down.
Test your balance
A quick way to test your balance is by standing on one foot and timing how long you can stay balanced without a big wobble or putting your foot down on the ground.
This test should be performed barefoot on a flat surface. It may be best to have someone help you out with this test to time you and watch to see what happens when you lose your balance. Alternately, you can perform in front of a mirror or videotape yourself.
- Plant your hands on your hips and keep them there.
- Lift one foot off the floor by bending your knee and lifting your foot behind you. Keep your knees in line with each other and your hips and shoulders level.
- Time how long you can stay in this position.
- Stop the timer when one of the following occurs:
- You remove your hands from your hips
- Your foot that is off the ground touches the ground
- The foot on the ground moves
- You have a big wobble and your knees are no longer in line with each other.
- You balance for 60 seconds
Test both sides and note the difference between the time you can balance on each foot.
If you have a large difference between the time you can balance on each side, you likely are stronger on one side. If this is the case for you, think about your past injuries. Do they typically occur on one side rather than the other? Is that the side that you have a harder time balancing?
You may have found that in order to keep your balance, your foot and ankles were making small adjustments. These small muscles in your feet and ankles contribute to your balance. If you have weak, unstable ankles, you may find it hard to balance.
You may have also felt your glutes engage or you may have noticed that you had a hard time keeping your balance and found yourself having a big wobble where one hip jutted out to the side. If your hip jutted out to the side, it’s an indication that you may not be activating your glutes.
The following balance matrix helps strengthen your feet and ankles and you should also feel your glutes activate.
Performing this series of balance exercises can help improve your balance by engaging the muscles in your feet and ankles that help promote balance, activating your glutes and core — all of which contribute to your ability to balance.
Start by planting one foot on the ground and slightly lifting the other foot so your toes are hovering just above the ground.
Try and perform the whole balance matrix without touching your active foot to the ground. If you need to, lightly touch your toe or heel at the beginning or end of each movement for balance.
Extend your active foot and leg straight in front of you, as you hinge at the hip and bend the opposite knee until the heel of your active foot is hovering just above the ground. Return to the starting position and repeat 10x.
Next, extend your foot and leg at an angle of approximately 45°, while hinging at the hip and bending the opposite knee until the heel of your active foot is hovering just above the ground. Return to the starting position and repeat 10x.
Now, extend your foot and leg out to your side, while hinging at the hip and bending the opposite knee until the toe of your active foot is hovering just above the ground. Return to the starting position and repeat 10x.
Lastly, extend your foot and leg behind you at approximately 135°, while hinging at the hip and bending the opposite knee until the toe of your active foot is hovering just above the ground. Return to the starting position and repeat 10x.
Once you’ve finished on one side, stand on your other foot and repeat.
Perform this balance matrix a few times a week and after a while repeat the balance test again to see if you have improved your balance.
Erica Walsh lives and runs in St. Joseph, Mich. She’s an American Council on Exercise Certified Personal Trainer and Health Coach, providing one-on-one training to her clients. She’s also instructed group exercise classes and conducted group and individual health coaching sessions. Watch for more training tips and motivation from Erica in upcoming posts.
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