Does Better Balance Mean a Better Runner?
If the term “good balance” conjures up images of you hoisting yourself into a not-so-gracious handstand with arms quivering and legs flailing, you can relax. We’re not about to tell you that contorting yourself into a human pretzel is a requirement for nailing that PB. But that doesn’t mean that good balance doesn’t play a vital role in running well.
So what exactly does having good balance mean? Isn’t it something that you perfect as a toddler and never have to think about again for life? Not quite. Here’s how working on your balance can make you a better, more efficient runner.
Why Is Having Good Balance Important in Running?
Your body basically needs two things every time your feet hit the ground while running in order to prevent you from toppling over: Stability and balance. Stability, on the one hand, is dependent on the alignment of your body and the ability of your muscles to prevent your joints from collapsing with each foot strike. Balance, on the other hand, is a neuromuscular skill that allows you to activate different muscles and adjust your body’s alignment in order to stay upright while running.
So while we tend to take balance for granted, it’s an extremely important element of running. Breaking down the movement of running reveals that it consists of either being airborne, or having only one foot on the ground at a time. All of this with a moving center of gravity. Says Ian Hankins, head men’s cross-country coach of the Catholic University of America: “Everything needs to line up at the center of your body so you don’t fall over. When your core and posterior chain are aligned and you’re not tipping forward or leaning back, as a runner, you are more efficient and use less energy”. No wonder toddlers don’t nail it right from the start – they lack the required balance!
Why Do so Many Runners Struggle with Balance Issues?
So why do so many runners lack in the balance department? Did we not master the art correctly at an early age? Nope, that’s not it. But the answer is quite simple, really. We tend to run on smooth, paved roads and paths, and have easy access to plush, cushioned running shoes. Which ultimately prevents many Westerners from fully developing their balancing skills. Many rural African runners, on the other hand, grow up running on unstable surfaces with minimally cushioned shoes. And, as a result, their balancing skills are incredible.
Other factors that may potentially contribute to balance issues in runners include poor motor patterns, inner-ear problems, visual impairments and growing older. According to physical therapist, Kevin McGuinness, the brain’s ability to make adjustments while we run can be affected by age-related visual and vestibular changes, as well as increasing muscle weakness and stiffness as we age. In fact, we can lose as much as 75% of our balancing ability between the ages of 25 and 75, according to neurologist and marathoner, Ron Lawrence.
How to Improve Your Balance
And while moving to and training in rural Africa is obviously not a practical solution, there’s plenty you can do to improve your balance right where you are. By adding just a few, simple elements to your training regime, you can increase the ability of proprioceptors in your legs and feet to anticipate changes in terrain while running. The result? Smoother, faster and more efficient movement.
But how do you do this? Bestselling running author, Matt Fitzgerald, and Hankins recommend incorporating some of the following into your existing training program:
- Trail running. You don’t have to head for the trails every time you lace up, but be sure to get off the roads and hit the trails occasionally. Aim for once a week at first.
- Occasional barefoot running. No, we’re not suggesting that you get rid of your cushioned running shoes and join the minimalist running tribe. Simply add a short section (think a few 100 meters) of barefoot running on a soft, natural surface (for example a grass sports field or park) to the end of a normal run every once in a while. The key here is to not overdo it. You don’t want to injure yourself running several kilometers on untrained bare feet!
- Strength training aimed at the core and upper body. A strong core and upper body will enable you to hold your body in a proper position for extended periods of time while running.
- Equilibrium challenging exercises. Single-leg squats, stork stands and walking single-leg squats are perfect options for this.
- One or two balance-training exercises. Spend some time on the wobble board, or do some normal squats on a Bosu balance trainer.
A Word of Caution for Runners with a History of Knee Injuries
Just a quick word of caution, though. A 2004 study found that balance board training led to the prevention of ankle sprains in volleyball players. However, this study also found that balance board training lead to an increased incidence of overuse knee injuries in study participants with a history of knee issues. So if you’ve struggled with knee issues before, best check with your physician before embarking on a balance training program.
In the words of Fitzgerald: “The better your balance becomes, the more relaxed you will run, and the faster you will be able to run with an equal dedication of energy to the overall task”. So why not give it a try? The solution to clocking that PB might not lie in training harder and faster after all. Just take a bit of time to work on something that you once thought came naturally. You might be surprised!
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