By Dr. Dale Macdonald
As with all athletic endeavors, running comes with both great reward and inherent risk. More than 60% of runners will suffer an injury that causes them to take time off running – each year! Fortunately, by improving your balance, you can reduce your likelihood of injury. Balance is of such critical importance in activities like running that researcher’s have concluded „balance is the single most important component of athletic ability because of its implicit involvement in nearly all forms of movement“1.
Virtually all running injuries occur in the lower limb, with the majority of those targeting the feet, ankles, shins and knees. The preventative use of balance training tools such as Wobble Boards, Bongo Boards, SRF Boards and Combobble Boards has been shown to greatly reduce your likelihood of injury.
Balance is defined as a condition during which the body’s center of gravity is maintained within its base of support. Balance is a function of joint stability, and joint stability is influenced by the strength and proprioceptive abilities of the muscles, tendons, ligaments and joint capsule surrounding the joint. Your sense of balance is derived from three sources: your eyes, inner ear and „proprioceptors“. Proprioceptors are tiny sensors that are found in each joint and muscle in your body. These proprioceptors sense the position of your joint relative to the rest of your body3. Found in high concentrations around each joint of your body, they are also packed very densely in the muscles, tendons and ligaments in the ankle and upper neck. While your eyes, inner ear and proprioceptors are of equal importance when you’re standing still, dynamic activities such as running place disproportionately huge demands on your proprioceptors.
The good news is that we can improve our balance at any stage in life, young or old, injured or not, by the liberal use of Wobble Boards. Feed forward loops (as opposed to feedback loops) are the learned mechanisms that allow for the improvement in your balance with practice. Daily use of a Wobble Board for 6 weeks will greatly improve the anticipatory abilities of your proprioceptors, allowing your balance to improve by accurately anticipating any changes in your base of support.
Both neutral control and muscle strength are important components of joint stability. The stronger a muscle is, the better able it is to protect a joint from injury. The use of Wobble Boards is an incredibly effective was to strengthen the muscles of the foot, ankle, lower limb and core while stimulating the proprioceptors in these regions. With an increase in strength and improvement in balance, you run more efficiently and more safely. A great example of this is the decreased incidence of „shin splints“ and stress fractures by judicious use of Wobble Boards. In addition, a recent study showed that increasing your quadriceps strength (i.e. through the use of such aids as a BOSU ball, Bongo Board or SRF board) by merely 3% was associated with 1.2, 2.4 and 3.4% greater static balance, dynamic balance and quality of life, respectively2.
The most common and avoidable running injury is the ankle sprain. Ankle sprains cause mechanical damage to various structures of the ankle. Acute sprains also result in an important deficit in proprioceptive (balance) abilities. Prompt rehabilitation of an ankle sprain by daily use of a Wobble Board is vital to retrain the balance and position sensors that get injured when we sprain an ankle1.
Balance training will also help to strengthen your core musculature, which is of particular importance to runners. The impact forces associated with running are enormous. Your feet, ankles, knees and hips all help to absorb these impact forces, but your lower back still absorbs literally tons of force during a run. Research has conclusively shown that a stronger core leads to less back pain. More recent research has taken this one step further and shown that low back pain impairs your sense of balance (remember that joints are full of proprioceptors, and a sore joint won’t sense it’s position as well as a healthy one). So an interesting little link is established; running can make your back sore, but balance training can strengthen your core, improve your balance and reduce back pain!
All these benefits – just from working on your balance a little bit each day!
About the Author:
Dr. Dale Macdonald is a Chiropractor, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and Resident with the College of Chiropractic Sport Sciences (Canada). He is the director of Elite Sport Performance, and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Blackburn, T., Guskiewicz, K. et al. Balance and Joint Stability: The Relative Contributions of Proprioception and Muscular Strength. Journal of Sport Rehabilitation. 9(4): pp. 315 – 329, 2000.
- Carter, N., Khan, K. et al. Knee Extension Strength is a Significant Determinant of Static and Dynamic Balance as Well as Quality of Life. Gerontology. 48; pp. 360 – 369, 2002.
- Greenspan, S.L., Myers, E.R. et al. Fall Direction, Bone Mineral Density, and Function: Risk Factors for Hip Fracture in Ambulatory Elderly. American Journal of Medicine: 104; pp. 539 – 545, 1998.
- Gribble, P. The Star Excursion Balance Test as a Measurement Tool. Research Digest. The Pennsylvania State University. March, 2003, pp. 45 – 47.
- Gunter, K., De Costa, J. et al. Balance Self Efficacy Predicts Risk Factors for Side Falls and Frequent Falls in Community-Dwelling Elderly. Journal of Aging and Physical Activity. 11; pp. 28 – 39, 2003.
- Guskiewicz, K., Perrin, D. Research and Clinical Applications of Assessing Balance. J Spt Rehabil 5; pp. 45-63, 1996.
- Newcomer, K.L., Laskowski, E.R. et al. Differences in Repositioning Error Among Patients with Low Back Pain Compared with Control Subjects. SPINE. 25(19); pp. 2488 – 2493, 2000.
- Runner’s World. 38(5); pp. 22 – 23, 2003.
- Verhagen, E., van Mechelen, W. et al. The Effect of Preventive Measures on the Incidence of Ankle Sprains. Critical Review. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine. 10; pp. 291 – 296, 2000.
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