Balance work and stability are important for runners. Not only will balance help you as an athlete, but it’s an important skill for life.
If you haven’t heard by now, I took a nasty spill on a trail adventure with my son about a week ago. I was tired from leading a challenging bootcamp that morning. It was hot and humid. And we chose a challenging trail, climbing 168 feet within the first 6 minutes and 40 seconds of our run.
As you can imagine, I was already not at the top of my game. Despite the challenging conditions, we had fun, and after exploring the top of the ridge for close to 35 minutes, we decided to head back to the car.
And of course what goes up must come down. As we were traversing the roots and rocks on the way back down those 168 feet, my left foot caught a rogue rock in the worst of ways and down I went. It was a split second of searing pain and then I was down on the ground holding my ankle and howling. My son, of course, totally freaked out. Thankfully the pain was short lived, and after a few painful moments I was able to put my shoe back on and continue running down to the car.
I developed a little swelling and tenderness later the same day. The swelling has lingered a bit, but overall nothing too awful came of it. I consider myself extremely lucky. Things could have been a lot, LOT, worse. Luck was absolutely on my side last week. But I have to wonder if all my single leg training had some small part in it, too. Either by allowing me to catch myself before totally obliterating my ankle, or at least in aiding the healing process.
In any event, I’m grateful to myself for making me do all the balance and single leg work! I truly believe without it, I would be in much worse shape.
Now that you know why I’m covering this important topic today, let’s get on with the meat of it: balance work is crucial for runners. And frankly, it’s important for everyone. As we age, balance becomes critical to avoid slips, trips, and falls.
By introducing unstable conditions to your workouts, you can effectively challenge and train muscle groups and fibers to help you maintain balance in an unstable environment. Translation? It’s the difference between staying upright and uninjured and falling and injuring yourself. This includes on uneven roads, rooty and rocky trails, and even going up and down stairs in your own home.
Ready to add some instability to your life? Here’s how:
Balance Work and Stability for Runners
1. Focus on single leg exercises
The first point here encompasses a variety of options when it comes to single leg exercises. First, and an easy option, is to simply complete a standard movement with one leg at a time. That means something as simple as bicep curls — instead of completing 10 reps on two legs, try 5 reps while balancing on one leg and then 5 more while balancing on the other. You can do this with a variety of exercises: curls, presses, rows, deadlifts… The sky’s the limit with this one.
Another way to complete this is by completing resistance band exercises, which are most often completed on one leg at a time. For example, leg extensions with a resistance band.
A third way to approach single leg exercises is to incorporate yoga into your routine. Standard yoga poses such as eagle pose, half moon pose, dancers pose, and warrior poses all include one or more features of balance and stability.
2. Complete a workout barefoot on grass
While grass is technically still a stable environment, there are some unique challenges and opportunities to working out barefoot on grass. Grass is rarely completely flat which will force your foot, ankle, and leg to adjust to the surface and terrain accordingly. There are lumps, holes, uneven patches of dirt and grass blades, and sometimes rocks and pebbles. The feedback your body receives from the earth is invaluable when it comes to balance and instability. Our bodies are quick to act and react to our surroundings, which is a great skill to have and perfect as an athlete.
Working out barefoot on grass — whether it’s a running workout or a strength session — can certainly help us hone our balance skills.
3. Be barefoot as much as possible
There’s mixed messaging on being barefoot and I recognize that and I won’t spout my opinion or experience as the end-all, be-all, because it’s not. I’m not a doctor and I certainly don’t want to steer anyone in the wrong direction. This is truly just my opinion and experience, and it certainly doesn’t work for everyone.
In my experience, being barefoot has helped strengthen my feet and ankles. It gives my body easy access to the world around me (see barefoot workouts on grass) and has allowed me to adjust positioning as necessary. When I rely on footwear, I lose that sensation which can lead to twisted ankles and a false sense of footing.
This is not to say I run barefoot. I don’t. I wish I was brave enough to do so, and there have been times I’ve considered it. But since I run on city roads and trails with rocks and bridle trails with standing water, I’m just not comfortable doing so. Places I will and do run barefoot include on the track, on the treadmill, and in a well-maintained, grassy park.
But there are certainly times I am NOT barefoot and those include if: I have any soreness on or near my metatarsals; I have any pain of the plantar fascia; I’m rehabbing an injury that otherwise requires some type of compression of my foot; I suspect any type of stress fracture or reaction.
Otherwise, barefoot game ON! For me, being barefoot 99.9% of the time has been a game changer in my stride, footstrike, and overall balance and stability.
4. Use a BOSU ball or half dome to create an unstable environment
If you’re already comfortable with being barefoot, single leg exercises, and overall balance and stability work, a fantastic option to up your balance game is to add a balance disc, wobble board, BOSU ball or half dome to your workouts. Anything you can do on two feet, you can do on one. And any exercise you can do on one foot, you can do on an unstable surface.
There is a method to the instability madness, though. So don’t get too carried away with the unstable surfaces right off the bat! First, make sure when you’re first starting on an unstable surface that you start on two feet. Second, ensure your safety by starting on the most stable side of the apparatus first. This means if you’re using a BOSU ball, you’ll want the flat side down and stand on the ball side.
Once you’ve mastered the easier of unstable surfaces, you can continue challenging yourself more and more. There are days when I just stand on one leg on the flat side of the BOSU ball for a minute or two just to challenge the muscle fibers of my legs. The first time I did it? I could barely stay up for 30-seconds. Over time, and as more of my muscles engaged, I could stand on one leg barely wobbling at all. Now I can stay put for several minutes if I wanted to.
I joke with my clients and athletes that everything I do in class or during training is for balance and stability. But it’s really a half joke, because it is something I focus a lot of time and energy on. Balance and stability is crucial to overall health and well-being as we age, and particularly as runners and athletes. The more muscle fibers we engage, and the stronger we are, the more efficient our bodies become as we move through space. That means more staying upright on trails, less time recovering when an injury like an ankle sprain occurs (and less likely it will happen in the first place!), and more power as an athlete (like my high school jumpers).
There are so many benefits to single leg and balance work. Why would you not do it?
Interested in ways you can incorporate runner-friendly exercises into your routine? Check out some of these posts!
Do you focus on single leg and balance work in your workout regime?
What’s your favorite unstable surface to use?