What’s the single most important physical attribute to have for sporting performance? We often talk about speed, strength, endurance and power as being at the heart of optimal athletic performance. But in doing so we’re missing one crucial component says Sean McFarlane
Physical balance is the one thing that top sportsmen and women across all fields have; Lionel Messi, Jonah Lomu, Rodger Federer, Rory McIroy, Usain Bolt, Jessica Ennis, the list is a very long one. And I’d even go as far to add Phil “the Power” Taylor – not just to give him his first mention in this magazine, but because he merits his inclusion here. Tiger Woods used to have balance in abundance – no matter how hard he swung he seemed to be rooted to the spot. But look at him now – all over the place (in more ways than one).
Given its intrinsic link to core strength, coordination, flexibility and even agility, balance cannot be viewed in isolation. Perhaps it is this pivotal role it plays in connection with these other attributes that makes it so important. Of these associates of balance, coordination is the one that I am particularly aware of, in so far as I lack it and do little to work on it. Many people say that they don’t need coordination for running or biking but whilst I understand the sentiment, if my coordination was better I’m convinced I would be better runner and biker.
Balance training is, and seems set to remain hugely underrated, particularly by males. Perhaps it’s simply not macho enough – most of us seem far more comfortable telling one another about how much we can bench press rather than how long we can stand on one foot. But we should ignore the importance of balance at our peril. This is never truer than in relation to the dreaded march of time.
We seem all too happy to spin the pedals more and more as we age, but far too few of us are mindful of the imbalances we risk creating in doing so; sore backs being perhaps the most likely villain here. As someone who spends at least 90% of their exercise either clad in Lycra cycling or running gear, never has the need to “redress the balance” been clearer.
So how do you go about improving your balance? There are two things to consider here. Firstly, it’s important to be aware how good your balance currently is and whether you have any imbalances – most of us have a better side. Thereafter you need to focus on adding some exercises to your routine that assist in the development of balance as well as other attributes that balance is linked to. With the evolution of outdoor exercise there are plenty of fun activities we can enjoy that at the same time conveniently help us with balance.
Get better balance: tips & strategies
Firm or flaky: to see how good or bad your balance is, do this simple drill. Stand with bare feet and focus on grounding yourself properly and relaxing fully, noticing how that feels. Then slowly lift both arms straight up, again observing how that feels and how your balance is working, or not. Then lift one leg, bending at the knee, then the other (er not at the same time, now that would test your balance). Now repeat the same process with your eyes shut. This drill should give you a decent awareness of your balance but the following activities will also help with that.
Biking tips: once you learn to ride a bike you never forget, and for most of us road biking doesn’t present a particular problem in terms of balance. So in order to challenge your balance, get off-road. Mountain biking on terrain that safely challenges you is ideal. Cyclo-cross is another perfect option here. If you don’t have an off-road bike, stick to your road bike and do some tight descents, noticing which way you find it easier to turn. Remember that an improvement in your balance will in fact significantly help your road biking, giving you the ability to bike more smoothly and maximise your power.
Running tips: like cycling, get off-road to work on your balance. Find some twisting trails with varying terrain. Use the need to improve your balance as a very worthwhile reason to start hill running. The results will be a better and more energy efficient running form and stronger ankles.
Kayak: either in white water or on flat water in a boat where the stability challenges you. Here you’ll feel more than ever how much balance links with core strength and coordination.
Surf: surfing has the image for far too many of us as a sport we only do on holiday. But it needn’t be. We live on a big island so there’s really no excuse for not getting out and giving it a go. You don’t need to be any good either. Just trying to stay lying on your board as you’re pounded by the swell is a great way to work on your balance as well as core strength, coordination, flexibility and agility.
Head for the snow: skiing and snowboarding are great ways to have fun and work on balance at the same time. Include ski touring for some extra fitness.
Yoga and pilates: perhaps not something that many of us tend to do enough of but yoga and Pilates are much more than stretching and core strength. Balance is a major part of both activities so now you have even more reason to do them.
Ball sports: want to play more golf, tennis or cricket? Well go on. They’re good for your general health, assisting as they do with balance and coordination. Don’t underestimate the value of doing sports that clearly require coordination.
Play with the kids: children inevitably like to run around and throw things. So join in. You’ll make more of an effort too as nobody wants to be the kid with the uncoordinated parent.