Out of the Box – By Norrie Williamson
Proprioception is the awareness of joint and limb positions, and hence impacts on your ability to balance and your agility, and of course, your running speed and efficiency.
In running, the shorter the time your foot is on the ground, the higher the number of steps (cadence) you can take in a minute, and the more power/drive you can use to move your body forwards (by driving backwards with your legs). Poor proprioception means a longer time of foot-strike and more lateral forces to ensure balance, which is energy used (lost) in the incorrect direction. Shorter landings and low impact not only tend to bring higher running speed, but also reduced injury. Most experienced runners will have a contact time below 300 milliseconds, but many elites get under 200ms, with low-impact load transfer.
It is clear that a good level of proprioception minimises wasted energy in trying to balance and stabilise the landing foot, and hence allows more strides in a forward direction per minute. Also, improved contact balance obviously reduces the risk of falling. So, the logical question is, how can you improve your proprioception? Well, there are two conditions to consider: Static and dynamic.
Static, in my opinion, is the starting point. If you can’t balance, or have poor proprioception, in the static format, it’s unlikely you will be able to capture your best in the dynamic. To put that another way, if you can improve your static, you have a good chance of improving your dynamic. Therefore, doing a simple static exercise such as the ‘superman,’ where you go down on all fours, with your back straight, then raise one arm and the opposite leg off the ground, is a good starting point. Keep your back straight, the core tight, and leg and arm straight. Hold this for five seconds at first, then do the opposing side, and with practice build up to 20 seconds per side, and then try doing it with your eyes closed.
Even standing on one leg with the other knee-raised to 90 degree (static march) is a good test, and once mastered, becomes more challenging with your eyes closed. Again, commence with five seconds and build to 20 seconds in each case.
The one leg stand is usually easily and quickly mastered by most people, but you can take it to another level by using a foam balance pad. Normally these pads come in a size wide enough to cater for two feet, but Stellenbosch-based company B4play also offers a smaller single-foot version that is ideal for the traveller. (You’ll find them at www.b-4play.co.za.)
Everyone thinks it’s easy to stand on both feet on a balance pad, but try standing on one and throwing and catching a ball or small weight to and from a partner, and you immediately get the initial feel of imbalance, and the need for your ankles to gain stability. This comes from the neural system and small muscles and soft tissue. However, soon you will graduate to doing this on one leg, and then to wider and more erratic catch and throw movements. Further progression can include single leg squat movements to pick items from the ground. Doing all of these exercises without and then with the balance pad is a great measure of your progress and achievement.
Using two well-spaced pads is another way of improving your balance, and it can be made more running-like by downloading the ‘metrotimer’ from your app store. Starting with solid floor, run on the spot at around 80 beats per minute on the timer, landing on your forefoot, then progressing to 90 beats per minute, which will increase your cadence. Now try landing on the balance pads and build to the same cadence. This will decrease your ground contact time, increase your speed, and improve your proprioception for the running.
Now take it outside onto a 20 to 30-metre run, focusing on running tall, with lowest chest rib high, knees punching forward, leaning slightly forward and driving backward with the foot, and fast short strides, and soon you will have quick, light foot contact and be both more balanced and running faster.
About the Author
Norrie has represented Scotland, Great Britain and South Africa in ultra-distance running and triathlon, and he is an IAAF-accredited coach and course measurer. You can read more from him at www.coachnorrie.co.za.