I admit that I do harbor some guilt when I am on my daily runs. No, I don’t feel guilty because I just ate a jelly doughnut and am viciously trying to shave those calories off my hips before they even land there. I feel guilty in that when I run with friends, they frequently mention various body aches and pains that do not allow them to run as regularly as I do. I would be crushed if I could not fulfill my morning running obligations. (Does that word give the sense that I am addicted to it?)
As much running as I have done in the past several years, one would think that I would be a good candidate for a weak ankle, aching hips, sore joints, and bad knees. Alas, I barely sustain a blister. At the very least, I lost two toe nails after my last half-marathon. Okay. I am grateful. I will be an old lady one day, still running for pleasure and not from my creditors!
Perhaps I can credit my injury-free existence to a positive mind set…and to good proprioception. I know, I had never heard of the word until just a few weeks ago after browsing through one of my running magazines, but for the purposes of this article, I intend to sound like an expert. Bear with me!
As a runner, if you desire to get better and faster, you have to remain injury-free. Easier said than done. However, there is a way to achieve that goal, and all it requires is a few simple exercises to improve your proprioception.
Your proprioceptors are those friendly little sensors in your muscles that help you to maintain your balance. Obviously, for many people, they tend to go off-duty during periods of appreciable inebriation, but that’s another topic for another day. All of your muscles and tendons have these little guys, and when you are injured, they become damaged and don’t function at their optimum level. This can make running, especially on uneven surfaces, more challenging, leaving you at risk for injury.
These proprioceptors are responsible for informing your tendons and muscles to stop in their tracks when you are about to roll your ankle, for example. These little guys need to work overtime when you are running on uneven terrain or on slippery surfaces. I evidently forced my guys into overtime this past winter as I took to the streets in a foot of snow, ice, and other wintry mixes.
If you want to test your proprioceptors, stand up and give it a shot. Balance on one foot and then close your eyes. If you have to immediately put your foot down or your hands out to prevent falling, then your proprioceptors are slacking off.
Balance training is key here. Begin this simple exercise with your shoes on and eyes open. As you sense your balance beginning to improve, close your eyes. When you can easily balance on one foot for a minute, start doing this exercise with your shoes off. Start with your eyes open while doing this and then close them as you feel comfortable. A great time of day to practice this exercise is when you are at the sink, morning and night, brushing your teeth. Just don’t fall face first into the basin!
Ready to graduate to something more complex? Stand on a soft foam pad and then bounce a tennis ball on the ground or toss it against a wall and catch it. This will not only improve your proprioceptors, but your muscle strength as well.
It’s not just running on uneven ground that can present a risk of injury when those proprioceptors are not at the top of their game. Skiing, roller skating, field sports, and martial arts all put your joints at the risk of injury. Good proprioception can keep your joints aligned in the best possible positions. When you sustain repetitive injury to a joint, the nerves around that joint can cause those proprioceptors to become dull, leaving them unchallenged.
To keep your joints healthy, especially those knees, as knees tend to be a targeted spot in runners, do a bit of zigzag running on sand, if possible. To do this, place cones at three-yard intervals over 30 yards. Now, get a good running start and then weave in and out of those cones. Start slowly and then increase your pace as you feel comfortable. The changes in direction on the uneven surface of the sand will challenge those proprioceptors, and then when you do similar movements on firmer surfaces, your knees will notice increased stability.
(Information for this article was found at http://runningtimes.com/Article.aspx?ArticleID=15488 and at http://www.livestrong.com/article/118438-proprioception-exercises-prevent-knee-injuries/)