One of the simplistic descriptions of running could be a series of trips and falls that create continuous forward movement.
However, research tells us that even in the first world countries falling is the second most likely cause of death across the general population, and this increases dramatically with age.
There is an unfortunate link between a person’s proprioception and their age, particularly as they get into the 50’s 60’s and beyond.
Proprioception is the awareness of joint, and limb positions and hence impacts on the ability to balance and agility. Poor Proprioception can increases the risk of falling and in older people also the risk of hip fractures, and again statistics show that around 0.1% (around 100,000) of the USA population will undergo hip surgery each year as a result of falling and of these there is a high incidence of death in the first year of hip surgery.
At the running end of the spectrum, 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 the body forward (by driving backwards).
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 tends to bring higher running speed, but also reduced injury.
Most experienced runners will have a contact time below 300 ms but many Elite get under 200ms contact time, with low impact load transfer.
Condensing these it is clear that a good level of proprioception, minimises wasted energy in trying to balance and stabilize the landing foot, and hence allows more strides in a forward direction per minute.
Improved contact balance obviously reduces the risk of falling.
So the logical question is How can you improve your proprioception.
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, its unlikely you will be able to capture your best in the dynamic – Put another way – if you can improve your static you have a good chance of improving your dynamic.
Doing a simple static exercises such as the ‘superman’ where you are on all fours but with your back straight and one arm and one (opposite) leg off the ground is a good starting point. Keep the back straight, the core tight, and leg and arm straight. Hold this for 3 to 20 seconds then do the opposing side, then build to try the same with 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 5 seconds and build to 20 seconds in each case.
The one leg stand is easily and quickly mastered by most people but it’s also expandable to a greater level using a foam balance pad.
This comes in two sizes: the normal one is wide enough to cater for two feet, but B4play, (click here www.b-4play.co.za based in Stellenbosch) also offer a very economic single foot version which is ideal for the traveller (ask me I know )
Everyone thinks it’s easy to stand on both feet, but try standing on this and throwing and catching a ball or small weight to and from a partner and you 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.
Soon you graduate to doing this on one leg and then wider and more erratic catch and throw movements.
Further progression can include single leg squat movements to pick items from the ground such as the paper challenge used by some Curves Gym. Doing this without and then with the balance pad is a great measure of 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 and 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 you ground contact time, increase your speed and improve your proprioception for the running.
Now take it outside onto a 20-30metre 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.
This is not simply an investment in your running – but based on medical statistics and research it could be a life safer – particularly after you reach your half century!!