Why Balance Training Is Vital for Trail Runners
In order to improve balance, one must understand how it is best achieved. Proprioceptors are the sensors credited with controlling balance, and proprioception is your body's ability to sense where it is in space. Poor proprioception might cause you to misjudge when to respond to a rut or rock in your path. When that is out of whack, you're more likely to land wrong and get thrown off balance.
"Better balance and proprioception can help trail runners avoid injuries, as ever-changing terrain requires strong feet and ankles, good balance, and the ability to react at a moment's notice," explains Paul McRae of Personal Running Solutions in Florida. "If you improve your balance and proprioception and you hit a root or hole you didn't see, your body adjusts accordingly without losing control and falling."
Balance training is the key to improving proprioception and keeping you on your feet no matter what the trail throws at you. McRae says that proprioception can be thought of as a sixth sense that alerts the body when balance is threatened. When the alarm bells go off, the entire kinetic chain responds to the "threat." Conversely, poor proprioception makes you particularly vulnerable to those inconsistencies that require a split-second reaction.
"The more proprioception is developed through stabilization exercises, the less thought that goes into each step," says Sorenson. "Trail running can be distracting, and wondering minds and eyes can and will miss obstacles on the trail."
4 Exercises to Improve Your Balance
While any runner can benefit from balance training, it is particularly important for trail runners. "Balance conditioning is a way to train the body to make better use of the strength you already have by placing more emphasis on learning to move efficiently with little wasted effort," says McRae. The byproduct of this is not only fewer injuries, but also better performance as a result of the body's increased efficiency.
Most coaches recommend doing balance exercises 1 to 3 times each week, ceasing each exercise when you achieve good form or are too fatigued to execute it correctly. Commit to the following exercises and you'll see the difference just a few weeks can make.
1. Single-leg half-squat: With your hands on your hips, stand up straight with your feet shoulder-width apart. Pick your right foot off the ground and extend it slightly in front of your body. With your left leg, slowly squat downwards, making sure to keep your back and neck upright and straight. Come back up and repeat. Complete 3 to 5 sets of five reps on each leg.
2. Single-leg balance: Stand in a similar stance to the half-squat. Standing on one leg, keep your pelvis level and spine vertical. Begin by standing for 30 seconds per leg and work up to 60 seconds. For an added challenge, try standing on an unstable surface, like a Bosu ball. Complete 3 to 5 sets of 30 to 60 seconds on each leg.
3. Stability ball lunge: Stand with feet hip-width apart and a stability ball behind your body. Carefully lift one leg out behind your body and place it on the top of the stability ball, shoelaces facing down. With your back straight, slowly lower your body into a lunge and raise back up. Be sure to keep that front knee directly over your ankle rather than your toes. Complete 1 to 3 sets of 8 to 12 lunges on each leg.
4. Single-leg hops: Standing, place your hands on your hips and stand on one foot. Hop slightly forward, maintaining balance, and then hop backwards. Next, try hopping from side to side. Complete 1 to 3 sets of 10 hops on each leg.trail race.