We usually think of fitness in terms of cardiovascular efficiency, strength, and flexibility. Add balance training to the list. For most of us, staying steady under ordinary circumstances like walking, running, and standing, is easy. We take it for granted. But it is only easy because of years of experience beginning with those first tentative infant efforts to sit up and the many early failures when gravity prevails.
Proprioception is the ability of your body to interpret and use information about your position in space. Through a complex system of environmental feedback translating cues from the bottom of your feet, the relation of your inner ear to gravity, and from visual cues, your body senses which muscles to switch on or off to maintain your desired position.
When the information received is too complex to process, the system is overwhelmed and balance is lost. With experience, even the most challenging circumstances can be mastered. Learning how to ride a bike, ice skate, ski, or tightrope are examples of difficult, dynamic challenges to equilibrium.
If you have ever experienced an inner ear infection, you know just how well your sense of balance ordinarily works because when the system malfunctions, neurological chaos results. The world swims around you and you cannot bring it to order.
An inability to settle space around your body and move freely in an upright position is one of the most unpleasant experiences a human can suffer. According to American Running Board Member Ron Lawrence, M.D., "balance ability diminishes markedly with age." From age 25 to age 75, the loss of balance ability can be a staggering 75 percent.
The good news is that balance can be improved and expanded from your baseline with practice. Improvements in balance can result in improvements in coordination, athletic skill, and posture resulting in fewer injuries, and greater stability as we age.
Carrying this increased kinesthetic awareness and efficiency to the rest of your workout with running and weight training increases the effectiveness and safety of your overall training. Many coaches and trainers add balance training to the tools they offer athletes.
American Running Editorial Board Member Michael Yessis, Ph.D., suggests the following simple test runners can use to evaluate their balance.
Stand with your feet in a line--with heel to toe contact--and close your eyes. If you can maintain your balance for 30 seconds, that's pretty good. If you're wobbling right from the start, your baseline balance ability is poor.
How does this apply to your training?
You don't need to run out and buy a unicycle. You can try adding five to 10 minutes of balance exercises to your warm up or cool down. Standing on one leg, walking across a low beam, standing on a mini-trampoline, and using large gymnastic balls in a variety of ways can all challenge and improve your balance.
Look for safe ways to introduce new balance challenges into your routine. Challenging your proprioceptic system will improve your balance the same way increasing running will improve your running performance.