Proprioceptors are the sensors in your muscles and tendons, which govern your balance. They tell your brain where your body is in relation to itself and other objects in your environment. Having good proprioception is essential to runners, especially trail runners, who are constantly being asked to shift their weight to adjust for the terrain. It’s also important for winter running.
Proprioception is something runners should be working to improve all the time, but it’s even more important after an injury. Injuries to muscles and tendons damage the proprioceptors. If proprioceptors are not functioning properly, you’re much more likely to get re-injured.
Take an ankle sprain for example. It’s your proprioceptors, which would send a message to your brain to prevent the initial roll of the ankle, but if you rolled it anyway the likelihood of rolling it again increases especially within the next four to six weeks after an injury. Injury prevention isn’t the only thing that improves with these exercises. Your speed will also improve.
Here is an easy test to give you an idea where you’re at proprioceptionwise. Stand up, balance on one leg and close your eyes. If you immediately put your foot to the ground because you lost your balance, you have some work to do.
It’s not difficult or time consuming to include a few proprioception exercises into your routine. You can do them after a run or do them when you’re hanging out watching TV. If you have kids, they’ll find the exercises fun and you can make it into a game (and teach them about their bodies). You don’t need any special equipment, but there are things that you can buy to make things more challenging as you improve. A stability cushion is $16.50 on Amazon. A wobble balance board is $22.
Even if you choose to purchase either the cushion or the board, you should start on the flat ground. Stand on a flat hard surface. Take off your shoes (you can put them back on if it’s too difficult). Now, stand on one leg for 30 seconds. Then do the other leg. If you can do this easily, increase the time to 60 seconds. From there, you can close your eyes.
Other single leg balance exercises that can help improve your proprioception are:
Air Plane: standing on your right leg, hold your arms out like wings, bend over lifting your left leg up and back, and make a straight line from head to your left foot. Once you’ve mastered this. touch your right toes with your left finger tips and then your right, returning to arms straight out between each touch.
Single leg squats: stand on one leg, roll your hips forward and squat. You can bend the leg your not standing on and touch it down onto a step or stool or you can hold it straight in front of you for a piston squat.
Ball toss: stand on one leg and toss a tennis ball at a wall or to another person and catch it while remaining on the one leg.
Here are some exercises you can try on either the cushion or the balance board once you have achieved that level.