Friday, October 26, 2012

The Challenge of Being Upright: Improving Balance

Over the last year or so in my quest to become a better runner, I’ve done a lot of reading on various topics, ranging from running form to training regimens. One of the buzzwords I’ve come across a few times that is even more rampant in the Parkour community is proprioception; that is, the awareness of one’s own body, how it moves, and its position in space as determined by the stimuli within the body (ie sensory receptors activated by muscle activity or movement). I suppose one could say that it’s like using the Force to stretch out with your feelings and know exactly where each part of your body is in relation to the other and in relation to the ground, or sky, or objects around you. Barefoot running touts better proprioception as a huge benefit, as you become more aware of how you connect with the ground, and because the muscles, nerves, and tendons in your feet are awakened as if from a deep sleep - a deep sleep caused from having 20mm of EVA foam underneath them to numb your awareness and put your feet into a sensory deprivation tank that are known as shoes…or “foot coffins” to some hardcore barefooters.

In applying this concept to running in general, it didn’t seem too important to me initially, compared with something like gymnastics or Parkour, where if you hurdle yourself through the air without being aware of your exact trajectory, you’re gonna seriously wreck yourself. After more contemplation, however, it made perfect sense, especially when thinking about trail running, ultrarunning, and biomechanics. Having an awareness of where your body is and how it moves will give you a tool to make you more efficient, help you to overcome deficiencies in form, and when used as a focus in training, can make you stronger. One way to achieve this is through specific balance training.

There are plenty of products out there to help improve your balance, like the Bongo or Indo Board, bosu balls, and the like, but you don’t need to buy anything to improve your balance and proprioception. You just need…well, you. Throughout my ten years as a Nordic skiing coach, I’ve realized that the top culprit of bad technique comes primarily from poor balance and a lack of trust in one’s ability to bear their entire bodyweight on one leg, while also careening down the trail. Luckily for runners, this isn’t quite as challenging, but careening down mountain trails will require just as much agility and surefootedness. In any case, spending more time on one ski when paired with direct technique instruction helped my skiers improve, but it wasn’t enough. I wanted them to have better balance before even getting on skis, so I developed this simple balance drill. 

It may not seem like much, but try it and you’ll see that it’s harder than it looks, especially if you’re focusing on doing it right. If you spend at least 10 seconds in each position, you’re standing on one leg for more than two minutes. The beauty of this drill is that it can be modified in many ways and can be done virtually anywhere. I even do the simpler positions while brushing my teeth. Additionally, if you’re paying attention, you can start to feel where your body and center of gravity are. By shifting your weight forward onto the ball of the foot, or backward onto the heel, for example, you’ll feel what works better for balance, or what may challenge various muscle groups more. The same goes for leaning from side to side. By engaging the hips and pelvis and attempting to “lift” your body upwards as much as possible and keeping your legs straight without locking your knees, you’re working on balance and good posture, all the while taxing and strengthening the little muscles in your feet and calves. This can also be a good way to figure out where you might have imbalances in various muscle groups.

As you can see, I also included some extra drills for adding strength into the mix. These are more advanced, and I would recommend doing them on flat ground and/or wider surfaces first before moving on to rounded rails and such. Having good squat and pistol form on stable ground, in my opinion, trumps doing them poorly on a railing (like I did in the video). Other ways you can switch up your balance training include:
- try doing as much of the original drill with your heel raised. It’s friggin' hard!
- roll your center of balance around the edges of your foot, almost as if doing ankle rolls while standing on that foot
- Add a slosh tube for additional instability. If you can do the flying camel with a slosh tube, you’ll officially be my hero (vid or it didn’t happen).
- Find a way to measure how high you can raise your leg and strive to raise it higher
- try hopping in place in any of the various positions
- find some wobbly surfaces – or “wiggle rocks” as my niece refers to them -  to use as your platform

Above all, when doing these drills, RELAX THE FOOT! Ultimately you should be doing these barefoot or in minimal shoes, so that your foot can relax and expand, thereby activating and strengthening the various muscles and tendons. Your feet will get stronger and will thank you for it. Good luck, and add a comment below with any questions or additional ideas. I’m always looking for ways to improve this drill.

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