Proprioception is a big scientific word but learning to love it it can help you become a better runner. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines Proprioception (n) as ‘the reception of stimuli produced within the organism’. Dictionary.com give a slightly more friendly definition: perception governed by proprioceptors, as awareness of the position of one’s body. Proprioceptors are sensors in all of our muscles and tendons that help control balance. That second definition makes it pretty easy to see how improving our proprioception could help our running performance. Better balance means after steps and the more aware we are of what, how and when our body is doing something, the more efficient we can become at responding to it.
Have you ever had an ankle injury? Exercises to improve proprioception were probably part of your rehab plan. Why? Exercising the proprioceptors helps strengthen ankles and feet. You never know what you’ll come across when you’re running, especially on trails and once we’re injured, the damaged proprioceptors have trouble functioning properly. Failing to reteach them to work correctly can ultimately lead to more injuries on the same joint and new injuries on rocky, uneven or unpredictable terrain. Unfortunately, injuries aren’t the only thing that gets in the way of hardworking proprioceptors. Wearing shoes all the time takes our feet away from the ground, dulls our senses and makes us visually dominant. Waiting for our eyes to see something and tell our brain what to do is a very slow process compared to an immediate response from the correct muscles. A better response means better balance.
To test your proprioception, stand on one foot and close your eyes. If you immediately start to wobble and put your other foot on the ground, it’s time to go to work. Here are exercises to add to your daily routine that will build better balance, improve proprioception and help you become a better runner.
Go barefoot as often as possible. Take a few minutes each day to work on single leg balance exercises, progressing to do them with your eyes closed. Eventually, add a balance board or a few BOSU balls. Both are great additions to any workout collection. The unstable surfaces challenge your body to respond quickly to what’s happening under your feet and are good tools for strengthening feet and ankles. Once you can stay still for a period of time, try closing your eyes. Eventually you can add ball tossing and other upper body exercises to the challenge.
Start practicing your proprioception today to feel stronger and safer on any running surface.