You may not realize it, but running requires a lot of balance. In fact, the reason babies can’t really run until they’re about two years old is that they lack the balance to do so. When you run, you spend all your time either in the air or on one foot, and it takes a lot of balance to remain upright and not fall over mid-stride. For this reason, if you want to have a smoother, more powerful stride (and subsequently run faster), it’s a good idea to work on this vital skill.
The problem is, in most Western countries, we run in fancy shoes that provide a ton of stability, often on smooth, paved surfaces. The more stability we give ourselves through supports like shoes, the less balance we need to avoid falling over, and the smooth, flat surfaces don’t do much to challenge our balance, either.
If you’re wondering why balance is important when we have shoes to provide us with so much stability, the answer is performance. When you’re running, you spend your energy on two main things: forward propulsion and staying upright. The more energy you spend moving forward, the faster you’ll go and the longer you’ll be able to run. To do this, you have to decrease the amount of energy you’re spending trying to stay upright. How do you do that? By training your balance.
How to improve your balance
One easy way to improve your balance is to get off the smooth, paved surfaces and hit the trails. The varied terrain you encounter on a trail run will challenge all the little muscles and ligaments in your feet and ankles that help you stay on your feet.
Another way to improve your balance is to incorporate single-leg exercises, like lunges and single-leg squats, calf raises, deadlifts and hip bridges into your strength training routine. If you’re doing these with just your body weight, try doing them without shoes on to challenge your balance even more, and if you’re doing them with weights, put on a pair of shoes that don’t provide a ton of stability, like some casual tennis shoes. Finally, core exercises like planks will help you get stronger so you can stay upright while you run, and help you to better adjust to changing terrain beneath your feet when you’re running, which is particularly important when you’re running on trails.
The bottom line
Training your balance will help improve your running form so you can concentrate more energy into moving forward, which will make you a faster, smoother runner. If you want help learning how to improve your balance, talk to a certified strength and conditioning coach or personal trainer who can give you exercises suited to your ability level.