Balance and proprioception: overlooked training for runners and athletes with knee pain and other leg overuse injuries

After reading the title you’re probably wondering a few different things:

  1. “What does balance have to do with being a good athlete?”
  2. “What the heck is proprioception?”
  3. “What’s for lunch today?”

These issues come up time and time again when I work with injured athletes from many different sports. I’ll address the first two questions and you are on your own for that last one.

Let’s review some anatomy first. There are specialized nerves in your joints, ligaments, muscles and tendons that help sense position and movement of your body. That sense is referred to as proprioception. Without these and other specialized nervous system parts you couldn’t close your eyes and know how your body is positioned at any instant. And you couldn’t stand up or walk in a stable manner. Clearly you don’t absolutely need vision to know where your body is or you would be watching your feet while you walk or run, right? By sensing position, these special nerves are also part of what keeps us stable so we aren’t just stumbling around like a drunk college student on Friday night. But many of us, even some of the best athletes, have poor proprioceptive awareness. For so many of us these proprioceptive pathways aren’t challenged often, and then the “use it or lose it” principle kicks in. Especially as we age, we begin to lose the efficiency of these specialized nerves. As these nerves degrade we can’t precisely place each leg with athletic movement. This decreased precision leads to poorer biomechanics that can be related to overuse injuries. Also, a previous or current sprain at the knee or ankle ligaments will negatively impact your positional awareness and movement precision because of the damage that a sprain will do to these special nerve endings. All in all, aging, previous injury and a lack of training stimuli are going to degrade the quality of your movement precision.

Do you think you have good balance and stability? Let’s find out in a couple simple steps. Try these in your bare feet.

  1. Stand on one leg as long as you can without touching anything and count slowly. How many seconds can you last on each one? Less than 30 seconds? In that case you’ve got a lot of hard work to do. More than 30 seconds? Well that’s a good start but we’re only getting started.
  2. Now stand on one leg as long as you can with your eyes closed. I bet most of you aren’t going to brag about this one. If you don’t make it to 30 seconds on one leg with your eyes closed then there’s likely to be some room for improvement in this aspect of your training.
  3. If you have some kind of superhero balance, try standing on one leg, keeping the eyes closed and tilt your head backward or turn your head to each side. This is really hard and will likely stop all but the best balancers.

So what are you doing to train this aspect of your abilities? I imagine several folks are going to say “nothing” because they didn’t know it was important. For what is essentially very little effort, I’d suggest working on your balance, stability, and proprioception to improve your running and prevent injury. Here are a couple ideas to address this area:

  1. Stand on one leg with your eyes closed. Sound familiar? If you are able to stand steadily on one leg with your eyes closed on a flat floor then stand on an unstable surface like a folded towel or pillow with your  eyes closed. Or, you could try moving your head as mentioned earlier. Aim for 30 seconds of the most difficult, but achievable, level. Switch sides.
  2. Single leg Russian dead lift. One of my favorite exercises. In a standing position pivot your trunk forward from the hip of the weight-bearing leg. The other leg raises up behind you for every same degree the trunk goes downward. Don’t round your back. Repeat 8-15 times until the hamstrings and buttock muscles tire. Switch sides. You can do this with and without weight. 
  3. Single leg step down. Stand on a single leg on the edge of a step. Drop down very slightly by bending the weight-bearing leg, keeping your weight back on your heel. Return to the start position. Don’t let your bending knee travel too far forward beyond the front of your foot. Think about keeping your buttock back. Repeat 8-15 times, at least until your hip muscles and quadriceps are getting tired. Switch sides. You can also do this with and without weight. 

Let me know how you do with these activities at Easy? Hard? These skills become particularly important for runners and other athletes with overuse related knee pain, ankle pain and foot pain.