The importance of balance for hiking
When you walk through a boulder-field, carefully hopping from one wobbly rock to another, you become acutely aware of the importance of balance! In recent months we have seen that walking is a complex process requiring endurance, strength and good gait; but it is also a balancing act .
Strengths is addressed in my book Hillfit:Strength but What can we do to improve balance?
What is balance anyway?
To keep you balanced, your centre of gravity over your base of support, your brain brings together information from three different systems:
- The visual system – you see the position of your body in relation to your surroundings;
- The vestibular system – your inner ear detects movement in different planes;
- The proprioceptive system – sensors in your muscles and ligaments (“proprioceptors”) plot the position of your body in space.
If the brain senses that you are overbalancing, corrective action is taken: muscles unconsciously contract or relax until balance is restored.
Plotting Brain Maps
Neuroscientists explain that the proprioceptive system supplies the brain with data to plot a “movement map” of the body’s position in space. With correct information from the sensors in your skin, joints and muscles, that map is clear and you will move and balance well. If the data is not accurate, that map is “fuzzy” and your movement will not be good.
Are Ankles your Achilles heel?
One consequence of poor balance is ankle sprains. Acute ankle sprains account for 3-5% of all UK A&E attendances, ~1.5 million each year1. As you walk the foot is supposed to roll slightly inwards as it hits the ground. If you don’t balance properly as you step forward, the foot rolls outwards stretching the ligament on the outside of the ankle; if this happens with enough force, a sprain occurs.
If you have had an ankle sprain, you are more likely to suffer another. Researchers have shown that previously injured ankles produce worse balance, leading to more injured ankles, not just due to weak muscles but those brain maps. “Once someone has sprained an ankle, the sensory receptors in the ligament are also damaged,” says Dr. Jay Hertel, Professor of Kinesiology at the University of Virginia2. Thus, when those neural receptors are damaged, the brain no longer receives reliable signals about how your foot and ankle are positioned relative to the ground.
Better Navigation with Brain Maps
How can we get clearer maps to aid our balance? One “low-tech” tactic, tested by scientists2, showed that ankle sprains can be avoided with a simple exercise: stand on one leg; don’t wobble; hold for a minute; repeat. This is not primarily strengthening the muscles of the ankle, important as that is, but stimulating the neural receptors to give accurate information to the brain. Researchers also recommend building this training into everyday life: “One of the exercises we give people is to stand on one leg while brushing your teeth, and to close the eyes, if it’s too easy,” Hertel says. “Do that for two or three minutes a day and you’re working your balance really well”3.
Standing on one leg for a while each day might not seem like cutting edge sports science, but try it and see how your balance and movement improve.
References 1-4 are available on my website: http://bit.ly/qJnt9B
Single Leg Balance Exercise
Barefoot, to maximise the sense data you provide to the brain, stand with hands on your hips. Lift one foot off the ground. Practice until you can stand for one minute without putting your foot down or removing your hands from your hips.
To make the exercise harder, close your eyes. This removes the visual element of the sensory input, forcing the proprioceptive system to work harder. Do the same with the other leg and try to work this into your everyday life as suggested above, perhaps by cleaning your teeth on one leg.