Why balance can make or break a runner
Especially in the spring, it can feel as if it's a balancing act to train for upcoming races. You're increasing your weekly mileage at the same time you're preparing healthy meals for your family and juggling deadlines at work.
Yet for runners, the idea of balance could not be more critical, because running is, after all, an actual balancing act.
“When you run, you never have both feet on the ground at the same time,” said Ian Hankins, men's cross-country and track and field head coach at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. “Everything needs to line up at the center of your body so you don't fall over. When your core and posterior chain are aligned and you're not tipping forward or leaning back, as a runner you are more efficient and use less energy.”
Hankins is a three-time NCAA regional qualifier in cross country. He's also a performance consultant for H2K Sports, where he designs training plans for distance runners and critiques running technique through video analysis.
Hankins said his collegiate athletes run seven days a week. Middle-distance runners cover about 40 to 50 miles per week, while long-distance runners do 60 to 80 miles per week. Both sprinters and distance runners do interval training on the track two to four times a week.
In addition to coaching his athletes through such running warm-ups as A-skips and carioca, or grapevine — drills that teach the body how to run in the correct way — Hankins incorporates Olympic lifts to strengthen core muscles.
“Most distance runners don't think about the importance of weight training to strengthen the core and upper body for the purpose of running more efficiently,” Hankins said. “You need to have strong upper-body muscles to balance and hold the body in the proper position over a long period of time and during high intensity.”
Running efficiently and using less energy are essential to running longer and running faster, two big goals of Hankins's Division III athletes.
Runners who have an impaired sense of balance are at an increased risk of injury by tripping and falling, said physical therapist Kevin McGuinness, who practices at Washington Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine in D.C. Imbalances also cause overuse injuries when certain muscles are forced to overcompensate.
McGuinness noted that we derive our sense of balance from information collected by the muscular skeletal system, the visual system and the vestibular system inside the inner ear. All these tell the body where it is in space and how fast our limbs are moving.
Oftentimes, motor control coordination gets lost in the mix, McGuinness said. Runners have been known to focus on nutrition, mileage and strength, which are all important, but at the expense of balance training.
So how do we know if we're off balance when we run?
Elite runner Tina Muir, who holds a half-marathon personal record of 1:13 and a marathon personal record of 2:41, was dealing with one injury after another, including a hamstring strain, plantar fasciitis and calf strain, before she and her coach took a hard look at her running form.
Muir had just done two marathons, and both had gone very badly, she said.
“I really struggled around the usual spots where people struggle — or maybe even earlier — around 19 miles, and I just blew up, basically,” she said. “Looking at photos of myself, I could tell I was wasting energy. My upper body was moving side to side instead of forward, so most of my energy was pushing sideways instead of ahead.”
It took Muir six months of balance drills to retrain her body to run more efficiently and injury-free. For Muir, that meant spending a few hours each week in the gym with her strength coach to correct the imbalances that she had developed running with poor mechanics over the previous 10 years.
A year later, Muir's gait had vastly improved. She said she has not suffered any running injuries since then.