Prevalent running injuries aren’t always about overuse. “The three most common injuries I see are anterior knee pain, iliotibial band syndrome, and ankle sprains,” says Robert Gillanders, D.P.T., of Point Performance and American Physical Therapy Association spokesman.
“All those boil down to small movement deviations related to balance and control.” To train harder without sidelining yourself, evaluate and improve your running balance with these five balance exercises for runners.
Why Balance Matters
Training in single-leg balance may not yield aerobic benefits that result in a PR. However, it’s an integral component of readying yourself to log the mileage and intensity required to improve.
“While you’re walking, you have about one and a half times your bodyweight coming through your legs. And the ground reaction forces will close to double when you start running,” Gillanders says. “On a mild training run, you can be in a single-leg stance thousands of times.”
Aaptiv has workouts to help improve your balance. Check them out in app.
Gillanders evaluates running balance by two phases of the gait. “Part of it is the swinging phase, and part of it is the stance phase,” he says. “The stance phase is where most people are vulnerable.”
A tiny amount of instability in the stance phase, in which the leg stiffens up to form a spring and bound off the ground, will be magnified over thousands of steps. That magnification is the intersection of imbalance and impending injury.
Find Your Balance Baseline
The first step to improving your balance is assessing its current status. “I’ll have [clients] start with single-leg standing balance on bare feet,” Gillanders says. Start with a simple pass/fail test. Try to balance on each leg for 30 seconds with your eyes closed. As this baseline test assesses the stance phase of your gait, hold your running form while you balance. Activate the glute on the plant foot, keep your hips tucked underneath you, and bring the non-balancing knee up to a 90-degree angle, so your thigh is parallel to the ground. Keep your shoulders back, and make a 90-degree angle with the elbow opposite the plant foot to mimic a mid-stride stance.
If you can’t hold this for 30 seconds on each leg, you have your work cut out for you. Even if you can, you may not be out of trouble. “With a higher-performing athlete, I try to push to where they break down,” Gillanders says. “If a person says they’re fine until eight to ten miles, and then they experience hip pain, I have to take the tests to the extreme.” If one leg consistently breaks down after a certain distance, you could be lacking balance, even if you passed the initial 30-second single-leg evaluation.
Balance Exercises for Runners
Build stability and strength with this series of balance exercises for runners. Incorporate these moves into your workouts a few times per week.
“Start on stable ground. The benchmark is 30 seconds, eyes closed,” Gillanders says. “If I have someone who closes their eyes and falls over, I’m not going to put them on a BOSU ball.” Remember to stabilize your glutes and core to mimic a running stance. Do several sets of this exercise every day until you can comfortably manage 30 seconds on each leg.
This exercise focuses on the swinging portion of the gait. It’s key for developing body control while you’re not on the ground. “If you’re lost in space, our goal is to learn what it feels like to be controlled in space,” Gillanders says. “You can really teach the leg to be stiff and controlled.”
Start by standing in a doorway with one hand against the frame for balance. Stand on one leg, and swing the other leg ten degrees forward and backward, controlling the swinging leg and working up to 30 degrees of swing front to back. Once you’ve mastered that, step away from the doorframe, and do the swings without holding on. Pay attention to your knees, and try to avoid inward and outward rotation during the movement. For a challenge, swing the opposite arm to meet the swinging leg in its forward position.
Single-Leg Balance on BOSU Ball
“Beyond single-leg balance, I’d start adding a balance implement, whether you’re using a BOSU or some type of wobble board,” Gillanders says. If you don’t have this equipment, fold up a yoga mat, and stand on it to create an uneven surface. The best results, Gillanders says, are achieved when you’re balancing on a hard yet unsteady surface rather than a squishy foam platform. “That more closely mimics what you’re contending with in the real world. We don’t stand on a marshmallowy surface,” he says.
Find something wobbly, and go through the same single-leg balance progression as you did on flat ground until you’re back up to 30 seconds of eyes-closed stability.
TheraBand Single-Leg Balance
Adding a Theraband into the balance equation further activates your hip flexors and stabilizing muscles, Gillanders says. “I might have them tie a TheraBand to the leg of a chair and pull against the band with the opposite leg to create a little functional challenge,” he says. If your TheraBand is narrower, place it around your ankles. Pull your legs apart to create tension in the band, and then balance on one leg to recruit your hip muscles.
Gillanders uses the single-leg bounding test, the gold standard of functional balance, for athletes whose balance imperfections may not manifest until seriously challenged. Start in a runner’s stance balancing on one leg, and leap onto the opposite leg so that you land in an identical stance. “Jump from your left leg onto your right leg, with the left arm swinging,” Gillanders says. “When you land, hold the position. Show me you can stick the landing, knees straight ahead, pelvis level, with your torso facing the appropriate direction.” Try bounding front to back, back to front, side to side, and diagonally to maximize your functional balance.
Stability plays a major role in your ability to progress as a runner.
Incorporate these balance exercises for runners into your weekly workouts with the Aaptiv app to improve your running balance.