The Importance of Single Leg Balance
“I have bad balance.” I hear this phrase every day, sometimes multiple times per day. When I am evaluating someone for an injury, I typically ask them to stand on one leg so I can see what their foot, ankle, and hip stability looks like. Usually, before they even try it, they say “I have bad balance.” Often times, poor balance is at the root of their problem!
When we run, we spend time on one foot (single leg stance) for a fraction of a second before pushing off and landing on the other foot. Essentially, running is a series of single leg squat jumps, occurring quickly and repetitively.
Being able to stand comfortably on one leg is an important piece of the puzzle to staying injury free. While there is a difference between static single leg stability (just standing on one leg) to dynamic single leg stability (i.e. running), static stance is a good starting point. If you can’t control yourself while balancing on one foot, it is going to be difficult to dynamically perform a single leg squat jump over the course of a few miles while you are running.
Running requires power in the legs. Power is the ability to generate force quickly. We have to have stable levers (ankle and hip) in the body in order to generate the force needed to run. Trying to run with unstable levers is difficult. Think about sitting in a soft couch versus a hard wooden chair. When you go to get up and push yourself out of the chair, which surface is easier to push off of? The hard chair provides a stable base for you to push off of, so it’s easier. If you have a stable body in a single leg stance, you will be able to generate more power more efficiently.
So where does proficiency in single leg balance come from? We have to think of the kinetic chain from the bottom up and the top down. Focusing on hip and core stability as well as stability of the foot and ankle will ensure that the body is working together as a unit. Where does the knee come into play? The knee is obviously in the middle of the ankle and hip. The knee doesn’t necessarily control itself, but it is greatly influenced by what’s going on in the joints above and below it. So working on single leg balance can help in avoiding the onset of knee pain.
Today we are going to focus specifically on single leg balance from the foot and ankle. Try a barefoot single leg balance and notice (or have someone else observe) how much movement there is in your big toe and how often the ball of your foot comes up off of the ground. If these two areas of your foot frequently lose contact with the ground, there is a deficiency in your foot and ankle in single leg balance.
If you have a bunion or are starting to develop one, this may negatively affect your ability to balance on a single leg. Since so much of our stability comes from the big toe “digging” into the ground, if you have a bunion or an angled big toe (hallux valgus), you will not be as efficient in gripping the ground. In this case, custom orthotics or an over the counter insert may be beneficial in helping to stabilize your foot.
To work on improving foot stability, try to isolate the big toe from the other toes when you are standing. Push the big toe into ground while slightly elevating the other four toes. Then try to extend the big toe while the other toes remain on the ground. This might be difficult, or impossible, to do at first. You can work on isolating the big toe by sitting down and lifting your toes off of the ground. Then, use your finger to apply resistance to the big toe as you try to drive it into the ground. You should notice improvements in this motion pretty quickly. You are not necessarily increasing the strength (which takes a long time to acquire) in the foot, but rather improving your ability to fire the muscles that control the foot. After a week or two you should be better with this.
Once you can control the big toe, you should get comfortable with single leg balance for 30 seconds. When this becomes easy, try closing your eyes. Closing your eyes takes away visual feedback and makes your body work harder to sense the feedback from your feet and make appropriate changes to keep you balanced. I usually try eyes closed single leg balance at the end of a cross training workout when I am fatigued. It’s more challenging and really makes your body work hard to maintain balance. I’m sure I get some funny looks at the gym, but I can’t see them because my eyes are closed! You won’t notice them either, so go ahead and try it. Think of how tired you are at the end of a run. If you get used to balancing when you’re tired, it will be easier to maintain single leg stability during your runs.
Going back to the single leg power that I mentioned earlier, once you get good with static single leg stability, you have to progress to dynamic stability. Try adding some motion into your balance exercises, like squats, rotations, ball tosses…anything to get you focusing on something other than just standing there. Soon, you will become proficient in dynamic single leg stance. Then, the last progression is developing single leg power through jumping exercises (plyometrics). Single leg squat jumps are a great exercise for runners to work on maintaining balance and developing power (quick generation of force). Remember, performing exercises that are too advanced for you will not do you any good and may actually do you harm. Make sure you have sufficient balance and strength before you try plyometric exercises. If you’re uncertain on proper form, be sure to ask a health or fitness professional.
If you’re having aches and pains somewhere along your leg from running, take a minute to test your single leg balance. If it’s poor, it could definitely be a contributing factor to your issues. It’s also a simple thing that you can work on in your daily routine to help improve your running. Stand on one leg while you are waiting in line, brushing your teeth, or washing the dishes. It will help you in the long run!