Balance Training for Runners
Most runners are primarily focused on improving their endurance and speed during their training cycles. Strength and flexibility are usually a secondary focus, especially if the runner has had a history of an injury and has been educated on the importance of these components. Balance training, on the other hand, seems to be of less importance to runners. In general, balance declines as we get older—by up to 75% by the time we are 75 years old. This is why older people are prone to falls, which is currently the leading cause of injury and death in the geriatric population. Balance is fundamentally the skill of keeping the body aligned and upright by reacting to changes in our center of mass at all times. Taking this definition into consideration, it seems balance should also be a primary focus during training, since after all, running is basically a one-legged balancing act.
Balance is (Almost) Everything
Most people will think of running as an activity involving a push-off phase, forward propulsion, and a landing. These are all most definitely parts of the running cycle, but about 50% of running is an action of falling forward. Thankfully, we developed the ability at an early age to stabilize ourselves against falling while running. This natural reaction gets harder to control as we run longer and faster, since the muscles in charge of this action get fatigued. And if running straight with no disruptions gets harder to control when we are tired, then the task of maintaining our balance is that much more difficult when having to make a sharp turn, stepping over uneven surface, or having to make a sudden stop to avoid a collision with a person or object. Improving our body’s balance directly will not only improve running form and posture, but it will also decrease injury risk and pain.
How to Train Balance
Balance is controlled by proprioceptors in our muscles and joints, which are basically tiny sensory nerves that can anticipate changes in our body’s center of mass. When we step on a pebble that causes a loss of balance, the proprioceptors fire this sensation to our muscles, so that they can react as quickly as possible to stabilize our joints and avoid a fall. For the case of running, the main proprioceptors to focus on when working on balance training are the ones located in the feet, ankles, and hips. It is always best to start working from the ground up as the feet and ankles are the first to sense any position changes from running on uneven surface, for example.
Exercise (and Run) Barefoot
One theory of why Kenyans are one of the fastest and most efficient runners is because they grow up walking and running barefoot on uneven terrain, therefore constantly strengthening their proprioceptors and intrinsic foot muscles that control balance. This enables these runners to devote the majority of their energy to forward propulsion while running. Unlike the Kenyans, most of us have grown up running in some good-looking shoes with excellent support and cushioning. On top of that, we opt for road running when training for a marathon. This means we leave our proprioceptors pretty quiet during our entire run. The only time those nerve receptors are active is when there is a sudden change in our position that we are not prepared for.
Strengthen Balance Muscles
A part of every runner’s strengthening program should include core, hip, ankle, and foot exercises. Most of us occasionally incorporate upper leg strengthening, which is important, but often forget to directly strengthen the joints and muscles below. The foot and ankle joint are probably one of the most important body parts for runners, as they carry the entire weight of the body at all times. The feet absorb the initial impact of striking the ground, which makes them extremely vulnerable to injury. Easy exercises to work the ankle stabilizers can be done with resistance bands, strengthening the four main movements of the joint. For the intrinsic muscles of the feet, towel curls are an effective strengthening exercise. Place a small towel on the floor and try to pick it up with your toes for 10 to 15 repetitions at a time.
Simple exercises for strengthening the hip stabilizers can also be done with resistance bands such as clamshells, bridges, standing legs lifts, and lateral squat walks. All of these moves can be done without the bands, along with bodyweight squats, step-ups, lunges, and heel raises. Isolating one leg at a time is also useful, especially if you have experienced a one-sided injury or low back pain in the past. Incorporating a handful of these moves before or after runs is the easiest way to make sure to get them in.
Uneven Surface Training
One of the most effective way to challenge your balance muscles and proprioceptors further is to perform lower and upper body exercises standing on a wobble board, balance disc, foam mat, or other unstable surface. This will help work the ankle and hip stabilizers, intrinsic foot muscles, and the entire core all at once. As mentioned above, most runners training for marathons limit their runs to the road. Trail running is a beneficial way to strengthen the proprioceptors as you constantly challenge the joints and muscles with the varying terrain.
Keep in mind the reasoning for emphasizing balance training along with your regular marathon preparation. Good balance will help relax the body more while running, leading to better posture and less tension when fatigued. This means less energy wasted and more to use for the push-off phase and increasing speed. Keeping these specific muscle groups and proprioceptors strong will ultimately make you a better runner by allowing your legs to effortlessly move faster, while lowering your chances of injury and pain.