When I took a break from running to check out a balance and stability class, I found out I was an overuse injury waiting to happen.
Photo: Matt Dutile / Getty Images
If you're a runner, you've no doubt heard in the midst of your miles that cross-training is important—you know, a little yoga here, some strength training there. (And if you haven't, no sweat—here are the essential cross-training workouts all runners need.)
But what about the importance of balance and stability work? As I recently learned during a session with an exercise physiologist, it can make all the difference in your run—and in your risk of injury.
"Running is, essentially, jumping from one leg to the other. So, if you aren't stable and have trouble just balancing on one leg, that is going to impact both how well you run and your risk of getting injured when you run," says Polly de Mille, C.S.C.S., a certified exercise physiologist and the clinical supervisor of the Tisch Sports Performance Center at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. Think of any small issues with balance as leaks that can affect your form—multiply that by the thousands of strides you take on a run, and those seemingly inconsequential leaks open the floodgates for overuse injuries and disappointing finishing times. Not good.
How to Assess Your Balance and Stability
To figure out if any balance and stability issues were undermining my half marathon training, I took a class with de Mille at the Michelob Ultra Fit Fest, a two-day fitness festival focused on balance and recovery, which she promised would be "chill."
It started off chill enough—de Mille had us stand on one foot and pay attention to how easy or difficult it was to stay balanced. If you're not standing in front of an exercise physiologist, you can self-assess: Simply stand in front of a mirror and watch what happens to the rest of your body when you pick up that foot, says de Mille. "Does your standing hip shift out? Do you have a trunk lean? Do you have to put your arms out to stabilize yourself?" With perfect balance and stability, the only part of your body that should move at all is your foot as it comes off the ground. Easier said than done.
Next, you want to see what happens to your balance when you actually start moving—and here's where it might get surprisingly hard. Try doing a running motion while one leg is still planted on the ground. Or attempt a pistol squat à la Jessica Biel and look for the same breaks in your form, like a hip pop, knee rotation, or lean. (You can also try taking this fitness balance test.)
If you're not quite sure what you're seeing in the mirror, here's another way to test it: Have your workout buddy film you from behind while you run. If your stability and balance are on point, you should be able to draw a level line across your hips that doesn't tilt diagonally with each stride.
In my session with de Mille, I noticed two big problems: As I moved, my standing-leg hip started sneaking out to the side and my knee rotated inwards. I literally broke a sweat just trying to maintain my form as I moved. Translation? I'm a balance-related injury waiting to happen.
"In studies on everything from IT band syndrome to patellofemoral pain to tibial stress fractures—all the big running overuse injuries—one thing comes up again and again: a shift in the hips when runners land on one leg," de Mille explains.
How to Improve Your Balance and Stability
Like me, you may have some stability issues. Luckily, you can do a lot by strengthening two key areas: your glutes and your core, says de Mille. (P.S. Those weaknesses may be the culprit behind your running-induced lower-back pain, too.)
Start by testing how your glute strength may be impacting your run: Do a single-leg bridge, says de Mille. "If your hamstring cramps or your pelvis tips, it's a sign that your glute isn't doing what it should be doing—your butt should be holding you up," she says. Her go-to exercises: single-leg moves like single-leg deadlifts, squats, and bridges, plus hip clocks (an exercise where you stand on one leg and do a single-leg deadlift at 12 o’clock, then rotating slightly to the right toward one-o'clock, two-o'clock, and so-on. Then rotate the other way, as if hitting 11-o'clock, 10-o'clock, etc.). Booty bands can also help you build more power in your butt and hips that will help boost your running stability. (Try this booty bands workout that targets your butt, hips, and thighs.)
Core strength is also key for improving balance and stability. To check how it might be impacting your stability, start by assessing your side plank strength. Can you even hold one? Do your hips dip or rotate forward or backward? If this move feels like a challenge, you'd better get planking, stat. (Here's why core strength is so important in everything you do—plus a plank workout that'll help you build 360-degree strength.)
While these moves can help prevent a running injury, if you're already having pain, go see a pro like de Mille who specializes in sports injuries and can zero in on exactly where there's a kink in your kinetic chain that's causing pain.
Before de Mille sent me back out to hit the pavement, she gave me a pre-run homework assignment to help wake up the muscles responsible for stability. Start by standing sideways with one hip pressing into a wall. "Make sure the outside leg is right under you and then lift your inside leg," she instructed. While standing up super tall on your outside leg, making sure your hips are perpendicular to the wall, make a slow running motion with the inside leg. Use your outside hip and glute to keep pushing your other hip into the wall so you feel a sense of pillar-like stability. Repeat on both sides.
This exercise mimics what your hip and glute muscles should be doing to keep you stable on your run, de Mille explains. "It's almost like you're telling your brain, 'when I'm in this position, these are the muscles that need to kick in,'" she says. "That muscle is really the anchor of the whole chain."
The exercise definitely made me more aware of what was happening in my body during my run—every few minutes, I had to check in with myself, reining in a rogue hip or making sure my glutes weren't getting lazy. It was definitely slow going, but as de Mille said, practice makes perfect.