Balance is important. Not only for running, but life. It’s surprising how many athletes are unable to balance on one foot. Completing this seemingly rudimentary task can be shockingly difficult. Harder yet is completing the task without compensation. Compensations are often subconscious. The more we compensate the more our body perceives the compensation as ‘normal’ movement, further building the movement subconsciously and making it more difficult to correct–or notice for that matter.
If you compensate with lower functioning tasks (balancing on one foot), you can only imagine how this carries over into more strenuous and higher functioning activities (running). Worse yet, fatigue and pain can cause our compensations to exaggerate. Fatigue during a hard workout or race will exaggerate poor movement. Pain associated with injury or exhaustive works can also exaggerate compensations. Without identifying and implementing corrective exercises it’s nearly impossible to correct a compensation. Remember: most athletes are unaware of their compensations. Simply throwing more stretches and strength workouts into the mix many not be the answer, either. Although most compensations are built off a foundation of weakness and/or restrictions in mobility, fixing underlying cause may not improve your compensations. You’ve learned to move this way, remember. You’ll need to unlearn it.
Getting Back to Basics
Back to the basic movement of standing on one foot. This simple task can give you a glimpse into your movement. You won’t need a pair of trained eyes on you, either. Stand facing away from a friend, spouse, or child. With no other direction than standing on one foot, balance for 10 seconds while a video or image is captured. Then it’s analysis time:
The above image displays a common compensation for hip weakness: lateral lean. The left image is unsupported and was performed with no verbal cues. A lateral lean shifts your center of mass closer to the hip joint, effectively decreasing the lever arm of the lateral hip muscles. Decreasing the lever arm reduces the force required from the pelvis stabilizers and is a common compensation for weakness. This movement happens during gait and will eventually become deemed ‘normal’ movement–a hard habit to break.
Carry Over into Running
You shouldn’t be shocked to hear that balancing one foot is far lower functioning than running. The compensations highlighted above carry over into running quite well. After all, the run cycle includes a period of single leg stance with every step. Usually the cause of the above weight shift is weakness in the hip and leg. The shift compensates for the weakness and allows your body to stay balanced over the supporting foot. Eventually, the shift becomes ingrained into your movement and the neuromuscular system perceives it as ‘normal’. Once the strength has returned to the supporting leg the movement needs to be fixed.
Gaining strength is far easier than breaking poor movement patterns. Fixing a movement error, particularly one that has been used for years, is fairly difficult and takes mental fortitude. You’ll need frequent if not constant focus and conscious awareness. Fading to auto-pilot is a recipe to run with compensations–literally. The brain will tap into stored, learned movements and hit the repeat button. To fix movement errors repetition and focus are a must. Start easy. Practice feeling your movement with the above test (balancing on one foot) a few times a day. Try not deviate or lean to one side. You should also refrain from allowing your pelvis to drop. Next, carry it over to walking and finally running.