Last weekend I attended the Running Show and listened to many speakers talk about ‘functional training’ relating to running and how strength is very important to stay injury free. This information is crucial to any running program with everyone talking about ‘functional training’ but not going in depth to what the ‘functional exercises’ actually are. We can do squats and lunges, but what about your ability to Single Leg Balance (SLB)? For your whole run you are only on one leg at a time.
I’m sure you think that everyone can balance on a single leg, but you would be surprised at how many good athletes are shockingly bad at balance. So why do we need to be efficient at balancing on one leg? Studies have shown that adding balance training to your running program can reduce forces being transmitted through the lower leg. Not only for running, but a dynamic stability program can be extremely beneficial for multi direction sports such as football, rugby and hockey proving to reduce the incidence of ligament injuries around the ankle and knee. Incorporating balance into your program not only helps with the increase of strength in muscles but helps to decrease muscle imbalances between antagonistic muscle groups and between left and right sides.
Balance training is not only important for injury prevention but is imperative for any rehabilitation programme following injury. Proprioception is the body’s ability to know where a joint is positioned at any given time. Sensory organs that reside in the musclotendinous tissues become impaired when we get injured, stopping the soft tissues from being able to control any excessive motion and making it more likely for us to re-injure. You will probably find that if you have ever had an injury, whether its muscle, tendon, ligament or nervous, you find it a little bit harder to control exercises on that side.
I am not really a fan of sticking someone on a wobble board so I have compiled a list of my favourite single leg exercises, they are pretty basic as they only work the body in one plane of motion, but they are a great place to start.
To begin, do a single leg balance test, on one leg, can you hold it? And what about with your eyes shut? (Everyone seems to do this as a test, but I’m not sure why as I rarely ever run or exercise with my eyes shut?!) Just have a count of how long you can hold, then a retest after 2,4,6 weeks of balance training.
1. The Single leg Squat – Simply standing on one leg, bend the knee, but try to sit your bottom down and back. Keep an eye you don’t over extend or flex your back. Try adding some weight, like a medicine ball, and reach down to your knee.
2. The Single leg Squat with a Backward Reach – Very similar to the single leg squat, but with a reach backward with the non weight baring leg. Again, can use dumbbells or a medicine ball to increase load.
3. The Pendulum – This time the standing leg stays in a shallow flexed position, imagine you are trying to get your nose to the wall in front of you. The non weight bearing leg should stay in line with the body – so you look like a pendulum!
4. The Balance With a Forward Reach – try to reach your non weight bearing leg to the cone in front, but while forward bending your knee on your weight bearing side. Keep the hips level and don’t let your knee drift inward.
5. The Balance With a Multi Directional Reach – Same as above but this time the reach is to 3 cones set out like a triangle. Don’t worry if you can’t reach all the way to the one across your body. Again watch that knee for drifting inward.
All of these can be progressed by increasing repetitions, adding in some weight like med balls, weighted bars or dumbells, and also put down a pillow or an Airex Matt and see if you can control them on an unstable surface.
So, a few exercises for you to have a go at, always make sure your hips are level throughout these exercises. The top three you should feel a good work out in your glutes and hamstrings, the last two more in the quads as well as glutes and hams! Don’t be afraid if you feel your hips and your balancing foot working hard – just make sure you have a good stretch afterward!
Thank you to Collette for wonderfully modelling the pictures!