The Importance of Balance in Running

You’ve got to learn to crawl before you can walk, you’ve got to learn to walk before you can run. Why? Balance.
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Getting A Good Balance

The sub title of this article describes how a baby/toddler learns to move and then move more quickly. When they progress to running, this isn’t the end of their development. Watch a toddler run and you’ll find plenty wrong with their technique (don’t point it out to them though, their parents tend to get a bit touchy!) but they learn to get better. At what point is this development finished? Has your development finished? Let’s find out.

The Stork Test

Here’s how to find out how good your balance is: Stand up straight and put your hands on your hips. Raise your left leg and place the sole of your left foot on the inside of your right knee. Lift your right heel off the floor. Have a minutes practise, alternating legs and then ask someone to time you. The time starts when the heel of your supporting foot leaves the floor and finishes when your heel touches the ground or your other foot loses contact with your knee. Make a note of the time for both legs.

How did you do? If you Google the stork tests these are the gradings you’ll be given:

50 seconds+: Excellent
40-49 seconds: Good
25-39 seconds: Average
10-24 seconds: Below average 
Below 10 seconds: Poor

Here is a much fairer scale which takes into account all ages:If you scored well on this test, well done – you probably don’t need to read the rest of this article. If you scored badly, don’t panic – this often published scale was the standard achieved by 16-19 year old males in the original study carried out by Johnson and Nelson.
(JOHNSON, B.L. and NELSON, J.K. (1979) Practical measurements for evaluation in physical education. 4th Edit. Minneapolis: Burgess)
16-19 year old males have, on average, the best balance scores so if you don’t fit into this bracket, then it’s not fair to benchmark yourself on this scale.

Males
50 seconds+: Excellent
16 – 37 seconds: Good
6 – 15 seconds: Average
5 – 14 seconds: Below average
Below 5 seconds: Poor 

Females
27 seconds+: Excellent
23 – 26 seconds: Good
8 – 22 seconds: Average
3 – 8 seconds: Below average
Below 3 seconds: Poor 

Hang on a minute, I don’t run on tightropes! Why do I need such a high balance score?Here are a couple of alarming facts for you – the ageing process (as far as balance goes,) starts at the age of 25 and by age 75 you will have lost 75% of your balance ability. Aging is horrible, isn’t it! Even if you’re above the age of 75, this doesn’t mean you should take this an excuse and stop reading this blog. As a runner, you need good balance more than non-runners of the same age, so you should still aim to increase your balance ability.

The biggest technical differentiation between running and walking is that when running you only ever have one foot in contact with the ground at any one point. Running is basically hopping with alternating legs; it’s the same motion of landing, absorbing impact and propelling yourself forward. Do you agree that you need good balance to hop a long way?

Unless you spend the whole time running on airport runways (not advised, a bit dangerous) you will encounter things that could knock you, even slightly, off balance – kerbs, uneven ground, other runners, dogs, lampposts, toddlers with poor running form! Even running on the treadmill poses problems – that ground below you is moving! You need good balance to keep yourself upright, maintain your speed and keep your joints intact.

Was there a difference of more than 2-3 seconds between how long you could balance on each of your legs? Then you have an imbalance that needs addressing. One of your legs is weaker and the other is overcompensating to help it out. You know what this can lead to…

OK, I’m convinced. How do I sort this out? I’m not getting any younger!

Nobody is. (Peter Pan and Benjamin Button are fictional and I think Tom Cruise probably is too.) The simple answer is to practise standing on one leg, ideally in the stork pose. This won’t even take up any extra time in your day as you can do this whilst brushing your teeth, cooking or (if you don’t mind looking a bit silly) waiting for public transport – you’ll have balance like Karate Kid if you use my local rail network! Remember to start with your weaker leg as the one you start with will probably get the most time.

You can make the art of standing on one leg more dynamic and interesting by trying walking lunges, single legs squats or the single leg anterior reach. The latter of these is to stand on your weaker leg, lift the stronger leg behind you, reach down with your arm on your stronger side and touch the toes of your standing foot. In each of these three exercises it’s important to pay attention to your knees, if the knee on your standing leg moves to the side at all, slowly raise yourself back upwards and gradually build the depth of the exercise until you can do it without your knee moving.

For core related balance you can try bird-dogs (or Supermans as the teenagers I coach call them). To do this you go onto all fours with your hands on the floor below your shoulders and your knees on the floor below your hips. Slowly raise your opposite arm and leg until they are straight out in front and behind you. Slowly bring them back down and repeat with the other arm and leg.

what you need to know
  • After the age of 25 your balance will deteriorate. You need to work on your balance to redress this

  • A good balance will help keep you upright, maintain your speed and stop sprains to your joints

  • An imbalance between legs can lead to injuries

what you need to do
  • Take the stork test to see where you rate and establish whether one of your legs is overcompensating for the other

  • When you are stood still somewhere take the opportunity to practise standing on one leg

  • Try some of the other exercises I’ve recommended in this blog, or check our our Virtual Running Club, where each month we have a new 4-Week Challenge designed to improve areas such as balance, core strength and more

Want To Improve Your Balance?

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• And tons more!

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