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Health & Fitness

A good sense of balance improves athleticism, reduces injuries


Published:   |   Updated: July 13, 2013 at 04:16 PM

Do you know in your heart that you're a better athlete than your results show? Do you get injured more than other athletes you compete against? The problem you're fighting could just be your sense of balance.

For every athlete, elite to recreational, a finely tuned sense of balance is the key to good results. 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 make a big difference.

Balance is basically the ability to remain upright against the force of gravity. There are three parts to this important sense - and yes, balance is a sense, one which can easily be improved.

The fluid inside the inner ear is one important part. The other two are eyesight and proprioceptors, which are tissue fibers, mostly in the skin, that provide instant and constant information to the brain about the position of your body. 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, if you're acting by reflex, unconscious.

Proprioception is seriously impaired by alcohol, which is why cops ask those pulled over for a sobriety test to touch their nose with eyes closed. It's a test of proprioception awareness.

Adrian Conway, a certified Crossfit trainer, states that the human sense of balance is learned young. He adds that humans are creatures of habit, so early patterns ingrained in the muscle memory can last a lifetime if there's no effort to change them.

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 advises.

A major part of the sense of balance is the eyes - where the floor is and where our body is compared to the floor. Conway suggests practicing standing on one leg while keeping your eyes closed. Shift to the other leg, still keeping your eyes closed.

You can test how good your balance is by doing the one-leg drill while trying to maintain it for 30 seconds on each leg, first with your eyes open, then with your eyes closed. Count how often you have to tap your other foot to the ground to maintain balance. Sometimes you'll be twitching so hard to find the balance point that it actually prevents you from balancing. That leads to the next exercise: practice relaxing. Bend at the knee and ankle; work on calming all those adjusting moves that throw you off.

Next, work to make your sense of balance quick and accurate. Get into a deliberate off-balance position, supporting yourself with one hand against a wall. Quickly take your hand away and try to regain your upright balance. Put your hand back against the wall if you need to regain support. This is a good drill, because it requires instant and accurate adjustment, so you improve your balance quickness.

Part of good balance is a strong core. A well-developed core is essential for every athlete; the core muscles are used in every physical movement. Those with a weak core will overcorrect when trying to stay upright during active movement. Over-correction will cause anyone to go down, like it would in the one-legged drill if the other foot wasn't quickly placed down to restore balance.

Balance drills are also great for injury prevention; as much or even more than stretching. Your sense of balance will instinctively work to prevent a fall if you start to go down, whether on a bike or running on a slippery surface.

Whatever your sport or activity, you'll be a lot better at it if you do some work on improving your balance.

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