Deb Dellapena—In theory, running isn’t a two-legged activity. Sure, you have to use both legs, but really it’s a series of one-legged stances conjoined by the act of managing a controlled fall. “There is never a time when both feet are on the ground,” says Mary Ann Wilmarth, PT, DPT, chief of physical therapy at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. It’s all about balancing on one foot or the other.
“Balancing requires a high level of ‘micro-control,’ or muscle activation inside the foot to keep the body stable,” explains Jay Dicharry, MPT, CSCS, Director of the Center for Endurance Sport at the University of Virginia, and author of “Anatomy for Runners: Unlocking Your Athletic Potential for Health, Speed and Injury Prevention.” When balance is impaired, muscles work less effectively and struggle to deliver proprioception information (where you are in space) to your brain.
While running the body does whatever it takes to be upright and balanced, often recruiting the strength of other muscles. Working harder than normal to run the same pace over a given distance, especially as the bigger, stronger muscles become fatigued, leads to a reduction in running economy. In time, that can lead some muscle groups to overcompensate, leading to gait changes, which can cause nagging dilemmas such as a sore Achilles tendon or iliotibial band syndrome to more serious injuries such as anterior knee pain or plantar fasciitis.
What’s the solution? Work on strength and stability the same way you run—one leg at a time. Single-leg balance training teaches you to isolate and strengthen specific balance muscles while improving your reaction time. Only when muscles are balanced can the body run fast and efficient for long periods of time.
Here are six simple drills to help develop single-leg balance. Work a set (or two) into your training regimen a couple times per week on an ongoing basis.
Why: To improve knee and hip stability and to create a balance challenge for hips and core. This is an ideal drill for someone who doesn’t have access to a gym.
How: At the bottom of a set of stairs, stand parallel to the steps. Step up onto the first step with the left foot and lift the right knee until your thigh is parallel with the ground. Repeat 10 to 15 times with each leg.
Challenge Yourself: While keeping your hips facing the stairs, turn your torso 90 degrees to the left or right on every other leg raise.
Single-Leg Balance Drill
Why: To activate your arch to maintain good foot and ankle alignment.
How: Start by standing on your left leg, lift your right leg straight toward the 12 o’clock position if you were standing on a clock. Gently swing the right leg forward and back, from 12 o’clock to 6 o’clock. Repeat 10 to 15 times each leg.
Challenge Yourself: Still standing on your left leg, swing the right leg in front of your body, crossing the left leg from 3 o’clock to 9 o’clock and then back to 3 o’clock. With your hands on your hips, turn your head to the right and look over your right shoulder. Repeat on the opposite side. For the ultimate challenge, close your eyes while turning your head with hands on your hips.
Single-Leg Bend and Reach
Why: To strengthen your glutes, hamstrings and core while enhancing the balance of the stable leg.
How: Place a cone or tennis ball two-to-three feet in front of you and balance on your left leg, bending from the hip as you reach toward the cone. Do the same with the cone or ball at your right and left sides. If you don’t have a cone, tennis ball or another prop, simply visualize numbers on a clock. Start with the 12 o’clock position, reach down to touch all the imaginary numbers until you get to the 6 o’clock position. Do one to two sets of 10 to 15 reps for each leg.
Challenge Yourself: Do this same drill while standing on a pillow.
Why: To strengthen the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes and lower leg muscles.
How: Standing on your left leg, lift the right knee up until it is flexed about 90 degrees. Hold your arms straight out in front with your hands clasped together. Squat down into a 45- to 90-degree angle, making sure your knees don’t extend past your toes. Slowly repeat one to three sets of 10 to 15 reps per leg.
Challenge Yourself: Close your eyes when you do this drill—the inability to see your surroundings will challenge your sense of balance.
Why: To coordinate and activate foot muscles.
How: Standing with your feet shoulder-width apart, spread the toes apart. Drive your big toe straight down into the floor until the toes’ skin blanches as you lift up the toes. Then drive the four toes straight down and lift up the big toe. Alternate 30 seconds to a minute several times throughout the day.
Challenge Yourself: By rotating your trunk or your shoulders left and right without letting the big toe come off the ground.
Why: To gain control of the muscles inside the foot.
How: You’ll need a ball and a partner or a wall. Standing on one foot, throw the ball back and forth to your partner or against the wall, reaching for the ball and catching it while balancing on one foot. Toss for two to three minutes, alternating the throwing angle and velocity while switching legs occasionally throughout the drill.
Challenge Yourself: Alternate throwing the ball with one hand and catching it with the other. Catching with your less-favorable hand will require more concentration, both to stretch for the ball and to maintain your balance as you stretch.
This piece first appeared in the September 2012 issue of Competitor magazine.