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Balance Training and Running

One reason running is such a special sport is that almost anyone can take part, no matter what his or her level of natural athletic ability. One might line up at a race and find the following among the entrants. To the left will be a former college football player who has turned to running for fitness and competition, to the right a 50 year-old who has just resumed exercising for the first time in 20 years, and ahead at the front line a sub-2:30 marathoner. All may have different physical attributes, but will run the same course, racing against themselves and each other, hopefully reaching their goals along the way. No matter how diverse their athletic backgrounds, the more these three people train and race, the more they will begin to have in common when compared to the rest of the population. Beyond having a draw full of race t-shirts, they will all be strengthening their hearts and lungs, developing the many muscles involved in running, increasing bone density, decreasing body fat, in addition to the mental benefits of running. However, besides these positive effects of endurance training, there is also the unfortunate downside: overuse injuries. Thus the above runners also will have in common the struggle to remain injury-free.

Fortunately, if we can address the factors that can cause injury, we can avoid time away from training and racing. Many of these factors, such as running too much, too far and too often, muscle tightness and weakness, wearing the wrong or worn out shoes, are very well known, even if not paid attention to. Others are not as recognized. One overlooked factor that injured runners of all abilities may have in common is poor balance. Most of us train for endurance, strength, speed, and lactate tolerance, but not balance. This article will describe why balance is important for runners, how to determine how good your balance is, and how to improve it if necessary.

Balance is the ability to maintain an upright posture when challenged with a force that is opposing your body form remaining stable and retaining it’s equilibrium. Many of you may be wondering why developing better balance is essential for healthy running, since we are not regularly being hit from side to side while attempting to run straight ahead (the crowded NYRRC races being the possible exception). Meanwhile, sports such as tennis, soccer or basketball, where moving side to side and pivoting on one leg is a necessity, obviously require a good deal of balance to play successfully and safely. Running, although not meant to be a "lateral-movement" sport such as these, does have in common the necessity to alternately land on one leg and then rapidly the other. This alternating stride requires not only strength but also balance to keep you moving safely and smoothly ahead.

To assess whether your balance needs improving, do the following test: With your eyes open, stand on one leg by raising one foot (barefoot) without touching it to the support leg. Begin with your eyes open, practicing once or twice on each side. Next, while looking straight ahead, close your eyes and maintain balance for up to 30 seconds. Failure occurs if the foot touches the support leg, hopping occurs, the foot touches the floor, or the arms touch something for support. Give yourself two to four chances on each side.

Exercises that improve balance include the following. Single-leg standing: Practicing the one-leg standing as described above, aiming for a full 30 seconds, twice a day. If you lose balance, just re-start and continue until a cumulative total of 30 seconds is reached. When doing this exercise, it is important to maintain your foot’s arch as high as possible (support your weight on the heel and ball of the foot). Lunges: a single step taken forward until your lead knee is at a 90-degree angle, and the rear knee gently touches the ground. Keep your hands on your hips, and hold for 10 seconds. Rocker boards: These are made of wood and have a round bottom to create an unstable surface in one plane. Once single-leg standing is at 30 seconds, the boards can be used. Standing and "rocking" on them in various directions, first with both legs and then one, will improve balance reflexes. Besides these exercises, Yoga classes, which include standing poses, and/or playing a "lateral sport" recreationally can safely improve balance for running. By improving our balance, we can prevent repetitive stresses on our muscles and joints, and reduce chances of injury.

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