Enhancing Outdoor Sports Performance with Single Leg Balance Training

Enhancing Outdoor Sports Performance with Single Leg Balance Training

Abby Stanislaw

By Abby Stanislaw \ February 26 2024

Have you ever wondered what the missing piece is in your pre-season training program? Whether you're gearing up for skiing, trail running, biking, hiking or even frolfing, there's a frequently overlooked aspect that can significantly impact your performance: balance. As a Doctor of Physical Therapy specializing in working with high-level athletes, I often encounter the tendency to sideline or entirely neglect balance training, particularly single leg balance, in recreational athletes' training programs. Yet, in the realm of outdoor sports where agility, stability, and coordination are crucial, balance training, specifically single leg balance training, emerges as a highly effective method for attaining these objectives. Recent research by Marcori et al. (2022) describes the numerous benefits associated with incorporating single leg balance exercises into training routines for outdoor sports.

Benefits of Balance Training:

- Reduced lower limb muscle co-contraction: One of the first things that happens when you start single limb balance training is that your muscles go from working very hard to stabilize you in all planes of direction to more steady balance with reduced co-contraction of muscles. Co-contraction is the phenomenon where muscles on both sides of the limb (think quads and hamstrings) are firing at once to stabilize you. One reason that it is good to reduce this co-contraction is fatigue - it is highly inefficient to work agonist and antagonist muscles at the same time, and you will have smoother movements with reduced fatigue once your neuromuscular system can begin to reduce excessive muscle firing. 

- Refined whole-body dynamic coordination: As you increase your balance on less stable surfaces, you will also fine-tune your whole-body dynamic coordination. You have probably experienced this before: as you are standing on one limb or even getting into a tandem stance position (think, lunges), your trunk sways a lot at first, and then after a few seconds, it levels out. This smoothing out of the whole body in a balance position is a crucial aspect of so many outdoor sports. For instance, visualize a mogul skier and their very "quiet" upper body on very fast-moving legs. The more controlled you can have your upper body on a dynamic lower body, the smoother all of your sport pursuits will be. 

- Cross-Education: One of my favorite aspects of single leg balance training is the ability for it to "cross-educate" your other limbs. Cross-education is an incredible phenomenon where when you train one side of your body, the other side also gets mild training benefits. This is a great tool to use when you have an injury on one side and don't want to lose all strength/balance on the injured side; you can still gain benefits from exercising the non-injured side!

- Increased proprioception: In sports such as skiing, trail running, or mountain biking, we might not always be able to visually see exactly what obstacles are in front of us. This is where increased proprioception from balance training plays a huge role. This increase in proprioception allows our brains and bodies to connect in a way that is much faster than what we can cognitively process. Proprioception is our body's ability to feel joint positioning in space without visual context. Anytime we are training balance, and especially as we increase the difficulty of balance training parameters, we are challenging our proprioceptive systems and getting them prepared for those times when we hit unexpected obstacles, allowing us to move quickly and smoothly through them. 

Recommended Training Volume:

Based on the Marcori et al. systematic review, I recommend aiming for at least 45 minutes of single limb balance training per week. Though it sounds daunting, this equates to about six and a half minutes per day. The great thing about balance training is that it is such an easy training type to incorporate into everyday life. One way I encourage my patients to work on balance is to stand on one foot while brushing their teeth, doing the dishes, or waiting at a bus stop. Another way to increase balance training is to incorporate more single leg exercises into your current exercise protocol. Some examples of balance-heavy single leg exercises include single leg squats, single leg deadlifts, and single leg hopping drills. 

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Example Balance Progression:

If you're not sure where to start on your balance journey, here's an easy progression:

- Standing with feet close together
- Standing with feet in a tandem stance
- Single leg stance
- Progress all of these in order on an unstable surface such as a Bosu ball, foam pad or balance board
- Perform all of these in sequence with head turns, head looking up/down, eye movements side to side, and finally eyes closed
- Add in some fun neuro-cognitive challenges - count backward from 100 by 7's, name every animal you can think of that starts with the letter B, list every groomer run at Deer Valley Resort, etc.

Give single leg balance training a shot in your next workout, as it offers so many benefits for any athlete engaged in outdoor sports. From rapid adaptation mechanisms and cross-education effects to enhanced dynamic coordination and transferable gains, the evidence overwhelmingly supports the incorporation of single leg balance exercises into your training program. Give these strategies a try to see if they can help you unlock your full potential, improve performance, and reduce the risk of injury in the challenging and unpredictable environments characteristic of outdoor sports.


References:
Marcori, A. J., Monteiro, P. H. M., Oliveira, J. A., Doumas, M., & Teixeira, L. A. (2022). Single Leg Balance Training: A Systematic Review. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 129(2), 232-252. https://doi.org/10.1177/00315125211070104

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