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Do you have a balance problem?
I was 44 years when I noticed that running downhill on trails had suddenly become unsafe. The uneven surface was jarring. The switchback turns were too tight. The narrow paths and precipitous drops at trail’s edge screamed, “Danger, danger, danger!” I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. My leg strength was good. My eyesight was fine. And changing shoe models didn’t have any effect. Then I got plantar fasciitis. As part of my therapy, I performed some simple balance exercises. The PF got better. And lo and behold, so did my trail running.
Turns out I’d never had a trail-running problem. I’d had a balance problem.
By the time we turn 40—or 50, 60, 70, or 80—most of us have spent decades letting inanimate objects manage our balance for us. We walk in stable, flat-bottomed shoes; spend 50-75 percent of each day sitting in chairs or sleeping on beds; run on even surfaces like sidewalks and roads—or, worse yet, on completely stationary treadmills, elliptical machines and stair climbers. Simply put, we’ve spent decades deactivating two systems required for efficient movement through our environment:
Balance: Balance allows you to stand or move without toppling to the ground. Think that’s easy? Then watch a child learning to walk. Or consider this: It took tens of millions of dollars and decades of research to create, in 2013, a two-legged robot—Boston Dynamic’s Atlas—that could actually walk over rough terrain. When you run, you not only have to stay upright, you have to do it while leaping from one foot to the other.
Proprioception: This is your body’s ability to track its position relative to the outside world. Proprioception lets you walk without looking at your feet. It lets you type without watching the keys. Proprioceptive nerves relay position, tension and stretch sensations to your central nervous system. Your CNS then triggers correct muscle contractions to hold or alter your body’s position.
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Like most things physiological, if you don’t use your balance and proprioception, you lose them. But lucky for you, they’re easy to revive and then to improve. In fact, a 2006 study on football players found that just four weeks spent balancing on each leg for five minutes, five days a week, reduced ankle sprains by 77 percent.
Masters runners looking to improve their balance and proprioception would do well to start with the following six exercises.