Ankle sprains are one of the most common injuries any athlete will experience. It may be difficult to avoid that missed step, uneven ground or trip off the curb, but if you practice one simple exercise, you may be able to walk away without a serious injury. Sprained ankles, while sometimes due to a lack of lower limb strength, endurance or flexibility, are often caused by a lack of balance; proprioception, to be exact.
"Proprioception" refers to a sense of joint position. When a joint is sprained, it loses proprioception. The joint feels unstable and can give out. Proprioceptive exercises help the body relearn how to control the position of the joint. These exercises are a very common rehabilitation component for injured athletes, but they can just as easily be used to prevent injury.
Good balance is particularly important for runners who experience slight deviations in terrain. Proprioception exercises can help runners make slight balance adjustments to changing terrain while avoiding injury.
Why You Should Care About Balance
OK, so you’re not a runner. Why should you care about balance? Well, for starters, it’s a basic skill required in practically every sport. From soccer to tennis to rock climbing, adjusting your centre of gravity to match your moves is the key to any sport. The technical term for this is agility.
Agility is what allows us to move gracefully, wasting little motion. It allows our joints to move through the full range of motion smoothly and confidently.
While the start of hiking season might require that your entire attention remains focused on the trail to avoid falling, after several weeks of hiking you may notice that you are more confident in your ability to adjust to the terrain by foot feel alone, and you're able to pay less attention to the trail. You're increasing your kinaesthetic coordination and, in turn, your balance improves.
Kinaesthetic awareness, or the ability to know where your body parts are in three-dimensional space, is required for every move we make. Balance can be learned, challenged, and improved. Balance training aids come in a variety of forms, but equipment is an option. You can just as easily improve your balance with little or no fancy gear. We can train our bodies to improve proprioception within the muscles just by creating balance challenges for ourselves.
Here's an easy exercise you can try now: the one leg squat and reach. Stand on one foot, then reach forward and touch the ground or a small object in front of you and stand up straight again. You can also do a partner exercise, like using a medicine ball to play a game of catch while balancing on one foot. Incorporate more balance exercises into your fitness routine with balance boards and stability trainers. They can be found online and in most sporting goods stores.
The Benefits of Balance
We already know that having good balancing skills can reduce your risk of an ankle sprain, but it also has other benefits:
- It works more than just balance. Balancing exercises inadvertently tone the obliques, hips, thighs, glutes and lower back.
- It improves your coordination. Good overall balance can make you more coordinated and reduce your reaction time.
- It improves your running technique. Both walking and running require the body to constantly control its centre of gravity.