The ability to efficiently stay upright is the most overlooked component of running fitness.
Swedish professional triathlete Lisa Norden has traveled to Kenya to participate in run training camps. The trips were instigated by her former coach, Darren Smith, who recognized that Kenya produces the best runners in the world and wanted to learn the secrets to their success directly from them. I asked Norden to name the most important thing she learned during her time there and she said—unexpectedly, I must say—that it was the importance of balance.
“When we got there we struggled to stay upright,” Norden said, citing the uneven dirt running surfaces as the reason. “The Kenyans don’t fall over. We put our feet in beautiful shoes with a lot of support, we run on asphalt roads, and we lose so much [balance]. You lose so much power when you don’t have that contact with the ground.”
Balance is extremely important in running, and balance is easy to take for granted as a runner. One of the reasons human beings can’t run until they’re two years old is that they lack the required balance. Think about it: When you run you’re either airborne or have just one foot on the ground at all times, and your center of gravity, or balance point, is continuously moving forward. Only half of the energy your body uses during running actually goes toward forward propulsion. The other half goes toward preventing yourself from falling down.
You need two things to avoid falling down each time your foot strikes the ground during running: stability and balance. They sound like synonyms but in this case they are not. Stability refers to a state of the body where little active balancing is required. It comes from the alignment of your body as your foot makes contact with the ground and the ability of the muscles whose job is to prevent your joints from collapsing on impact to do that job properly. Balance refers to the neuromuscular skill of activating the muscles and adjusting your body alignment to keep yourself upright. It comes from the ability to anticipate and react to challenges to the body’s postural equilibrium.
Running experts talk a lot about stability and how to improve it, but they don’t talk a lot about balance. Obviously, the two attributes are interdependent. The more stable you are, the less balance you need. By wearing the right shoes, getting your stride right, and strengthening your stabilizing muscles, you can increase your stability as a runner and thereby reduce the energy you have to put into maintaining your balance.
However, you cannot eliminate the need for balance, and most runners—or at least most Western runners—are underdeveloped in this skill, such that they actually waste energy on balancing themselves. One reason may be the one Lisa Norden pointed to: We get artificial stability from the smooth, paved roads we run on and the $125 shoes we run in. These factors act as crutches, almost literally, that enable us to get away with failing to fully develop our balancing skills. Whereas Kenya’s runners, who grow up running mostly barefoot on unstable surfaces, develop terrific balance and are thus able to devote more of their available energy to forward propulsion.
The essence of balance is, after all, relaxation. Consider the example of standing on a paddle board on the water. The first time you do it, you will pour tremendous amounts of energy into tensing muscles throughout your body in the effort to stay upright, because your body has not yet learned how to skillfully anticipate and react to challenges to your equilibrium in that environment. But after you’ve done it a bunch of times, not only will you have far more success in staying upright, but you will do so with a much smaller dedication of energy to the task. You will feel and be more relaxed on the board. Running is the same way. The better your balance becomes, the more relaxed you will run, and the faster you will be able to run with an equal dedication of energy to the overall task.
So, how do you improve your balance? Easy. Lisa Norden has already hinted at one way: Get off the roads occasionally and run on trails. Also do some barefoot running if you can. This will improve your balance while you run, without any need to perform “balance workouts” outside of running. You can also train your balance by incorporating equilibrium-challenging exercises into the strength-training sessions you’re already doing. For example, single-leg squats. Finally, you can add just one or two specific balance-training exercises to your existing strength workouts, such as standing on a wobble board.
That’s all there is to it.
RELATED – Balancing Act: Using A Wobble Board To Improve Stability