A Strong Runner Has Balance
This post first appeared on the New York Flyers’ “News on the Run” blog. Thanks for giving us an opportunity to contribute!
In my work as a physical therapist, I would say that more than half of my clients state during our initial evaluation, “I have terrible balance” (or something to that effect). And guess who more than half of my clients are? Runners.
Runners are notorious for having poor balance, but it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, it shouldn’t be that way at all! Running is a fast, plyometric (jumping) activity that occurs entirely on one leg. Single leg balance and control are thus essential skills for a strong runner. Let’s start with the basics and talk about how to incorporate balance into your training.
What exactly is balance? It has to be more than just standing on one leg…
Balance is a complex function of multiple body systems. With input from the inner ear, visual system and sensory/proprioceptive system, our central nervous system synthesizes a picture of where our body is in space and directs what our body does to respond to the environment.
So why is balance important for an athlete, especially a runner?
An athlete is someone who is repeatedly taxing their body and challenging their ability to respond to different environmental stresses. Depending on the sport or activity, the central nervous system adapts in different ways to maintain physical balance and equilibrium so that the next time you repeat the activity it becomes less “new” for the body. Running is inherently an extremely repetitive activity. Thus, the more adapted the body and brain become to spending time absorbing shock and propelling weight on each leg, the more efficient a runner becomes.
Okay, I’m convinced…now what do I do to work on my balance?
The great thing about balance is that it is fairly easy to train and see improvement. This is because it is primarily a nervous system response, and once the brain is connected to a movement in a certain way, it adapts quickly and remembers what it is supposed to do.
The best ways to work on single leg balance are:
Being barefoot. Stimulating the small, intrinsic muscles on the bottom of the foot through direct contact with the ground is the most effective way to activate the corresponding chain of muscles in your hip, core and trunk in single leg stance.
Starting simple. Like anything else, balance is most effectively built by starting with the basics and layering on complexity once the fundamentals are mastered. You may begin your balance training by standing on one leg while you brush your teeth, but pretty soon you will be wanting to add reaching with your other leg, reaching with your arms, standing on different surfaces and jumping/hopping in different directions.
Thinking in 3D. One of the most important principles to remember with balance training is that the tissues of the body all function in three planes of motion: sagittal plane (forwards/backwards), frontal plane (side to side) and transverse plane (rotation). When we are trying to improve balance, we benefit the most from working in all three planes because our environment is constantly asking our muscles and soft tissue to react in 3D. Keep this in mind and be sure to move forwards/backwards, side to side and in rotation to cover all of your bases.
As mentioned, balance is a unique and complex body process that is especially essential to train in runners. I recommend incorporating balance training 2-3x per week into your workouts, but it doesn’t have to be more than 10-15 minutes. In fact, new research is showing that athletes who activate their feet without shoes and socks for just 5 minutes before playing their sport demonstrate improved performance and decreased incidence of injury. Start challenging your barefoot balance quickly before you lace up your shoes, or add a 10-minute routine of single leg balancing and jumping on different surfaces to your cross training days.
Here are a few balance exercises that are easy to practice at home. If you find that they’re too easy for you, or when they become easy through practice, try them with eyes closed or while standing on a balance disc or other prop that challenges your balance. While doing these exercises, make sure to contract the glutes of the standing leg, and activate your core to help you balance and stand tall.
Single-Leg Balance with Bent Knee
- Stand with feet shoulders-width apart and pointed straight ahead.
- Lift one leg with bent knee (raising thigh parallel to the floor) directly beside the standing leg. Hold for 5-20 seconds. 10 reps on each leg.
- As a progression — and for an extra challenge — at the end of the balancing motion, do a heel raise with your standing leg.
Single-Leg Balance Reach
- Stand with feet shoulders-width apart, feet pointed straight ahead.
- Lift and move leg forward without bending the knee. Hold for 5-20 seconds. 10 reps on each leg.
- As a progression, do the exercise again but reach the floating leg to the side of the body.
- For another progression, do the exercise again but this time reach the floating leg behind the body.
Single-Leg Hip Rotation Balance
- Stand with feet shoulders-width apart and point straight ahead.
- With bent knee and thigh parallel to the ground, rotate the hip externally/outward to turn the bent leg out to the side, hold for 5-20 seconds, repeat for 10 reps. Then switch legs.
- Repeat the exercise, but this time rotate the hip internally/inward to turn the bent leg across the body, hold for 5-20 seconds, repeat for 10 reps. Then switch legs.
Caroline Varriale received her Doctor of Physical Therapy degree from Duke University and has been with Finish Line Physical Therapy since 2013. She is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and is recognized as a Fellow of Applied Functional Science (FAFS) through the internationally acclaimed Gray Institute. A long-time runner, Caroline also enjoys varying her workouts with biking, resistance & strength training, plyometrics and yoga. She ran the 2013 New York City Marathon as part of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training and completed the 2014 New York City Triathlon.