Want the not-so-secret key to being a better athlete, a key even more important than strength, power and quickness? Here it is: balance. Whether you’re a climber, a runner or a motocross racer, your sense of balance will always be the deciding factor of your ability.
Luckily, it’s one attribute that can be improved easily, no matter how much of a klutz you may be. A few simple balance drills—which can be practiced anywhere, at any time—will do the trick.
Adrian Conway is an expert in balance; he’s the head of human performance at BASICS Sports Medicine in Holladay and a certified Crossfit trainer. But the cutting-edge facility is less about physical therapy than about specific training to make athletes of all levels better at their sport. He says, “Enhancing the sense of balance improves performance tremendously, for both elite athletes and weekend warriors.”
Balance is basically the ability to remain upright against the force of gravity. Fluid inside the inner ear is just one of three major factors in balance; the other two are eyesight and proprioceptors, which are tissue fibers, mostly in the skin, that provide instant information to the brain about the position of your body in the space you’re occupying. It is proprioception that tells your leg how far to move when stepping off a curb, where your hand should reach to grab a glass of water without spilling it, or how high to leap for a ball and reach to catch it. It can be conscious or, in reflex mode, unconscious. Proprioception is seriously impaired by alcohol, which is why cops ask those pulled over for a “field sobriety test” to touch their nose with eyes closed—a test of proprioception awareness.
Conway says our sense of balance is learned young, and because humans are creatures of habit, early patterns ingrained in the muscle memory can last a lifetime. To improve balance, he recommends starting with a simple drill: standing on one leg. “Sports are played on one leg at a time. We don’t have balance equally distributed on both legs except when we’re standing in place, so we need to learn balance on each leg,” he says. “Most people don’t realize that a major part of our sense of balance is our eyes—where the floor is and where our body is compared to the floor. So practice closing your eyes while standing on one leg. Shift to the other leg, still keeping your eyes closed.”
Conway suggests testing yourself. “To test how good your balance is, do the one-leg drill and see if you can maintain it for 30 seconds on each leg. Then do it with your eyes closed. Gauge how often you have to tap your other foot to the ground. Sometimes you’ll be twitching so hard to find your balance point that it actually prevents you from balancing. So practice relaxing; bend at the knee and ankle and work on calming all those adjusting moves.”
Another drill he suggests is to put yourself in an off-balance position while supporting yourself upright with a hand against a wall; then take your hand away and try to regain balance. “It’s a good drill, because it requires instant and accurate adjustment, so you improve your balance quickness. You can always reach back to the wall, if necessary,” he says.
Part of having good balance is a strong core. Those with a weak core will overcorrect when trying to stay upright. Overcorrection will cause anyone to go down hard. Conway says, “A great core balance exercise would be holding a weight overhead while moving around. Core stability is involved in every movement we make.”
In addition, balance drills are also great for injury prevention. Good balance will enable you to instinctively prevent a fall if you start to go down, even on a bike. Whatever your sport, improving your balance will greatly improve your results.