You never forget how to ride a bicycle, but a unicycle is another matter: Balance & Proprioception

Contributed by Scott Benbow, 2016 Ambassador for The San Francisco Marathon.

Recently, in San Francisco’s inimitable Dolores Park, I met a unicyclist who was practicing his moves on a stretch of flat, smooth pavement. Explaining to him that I had learned to ride a unicycle when I was in high school many years ago, I asked if I could take a spin. Although I hadn’t ridden a unicycle in decades, I was confident about my sense of balance. When I attempted to pedal, I fell hard on the pavement. My confidence was shaken and, at least for me, the adage “you never forget how to ride a bicycle” does not apply to a unicycle.

bosuMy humbling experience in Dolores Park got me thinking about balance. In the vernacular, a runner’s balance is what helps her not fall down while running. Another sense, called proprioception, requires a more precise definition. Proprioception is one’s awareness of the position of her body and limbs in space. Proprioception can be diminished by injury, age, and many other factors. With impaired proprioception, a person may lose her balance.

Together, balance and proprioception are vital to a runner’s forward movement.

As a middle-aged runner who has sustained some annoying injuries in the past few years, I embarked in 2016 on a quest for better balance and proprioception, not for unicycling but for running, walking, and general health & wellbeing. When you injure a foot, ankle, or leg, you impair your proprioception. By enhancing your proprioception, you can make such injuries a lot less likely. As a runner frustrated with three years of injuries, I was ready for anything that would get me back on my feet.

I have incorporated a 3-part strategy for increasing my proprioception and balance.

  1. At the gym, I lift weights while standing on a Bosu Ball, an unstable surface that requires more core strength and stability than lifting weights on a stable floor. I lift less weight overall, but I am convinced the unstable surface is benefiting my strength, proprioception, balance, and coordination. Over the course of several months, I have noticed tremendous strides in my ability to stand on a Bosu Ball in the face of adversity.
  2. fluidstanceI use a standing desk at work and am convinced this style of working is beneficial for balance, proprioception, and strength. By adding an additional element, constant movement while standing at my desk, I am enhancing my balance and proprioception. Similar to a Bosu Ball at a fitness club, the FluidStance is a balance board I stand on while I work at my desk. Keeping my balance requires perpetual, minute, adjustments of my feet, ankles, legs, hips, and, to a lesser extent, my upper body. While I’m writing, reading, talking on the telephone, or meeting with a co-worker, I am in in constant yet hardly discernible motion.
  3. I usually walk about 1.5 miles to and from work. Occasionally, especially in stormy weather, I take San Francisco MUNI light rail to my office. I never sit down on MUNI. Instead, I put one foot in front of the other and “surf” from my home to my office. In so doing, I am forcing constant subtle adjustments that enhance balance and proprioception.

As The San Francisco Marathon approaches, I am experiencing more confidence and control on my long-distance runs. I attribute this to the work I have been doing to enhance my proprioception and increase my balance. Look for me at the starting line; I’ll probably be balancing on one foot or the other before the race begins.

3 Replies to "You never forget how to ride a bicycle, but a unicycle is another matter: Balance & Proprioception"

  • comment-avatar
    Athena Papadakos
    April 21, 2016 (5:05 am)

    Great article! It’s helpful to be reminded about the value of strengthening balance. I take yoga for balance, tend to avoid Bosu Balls (but am inspired to try again!), and stand on a FluidStance during phone conversations at work. Thanks for the article!

  • comment-avatar
    C. Hall
    April 21, 2016 (6:31 am)

    If you have ever tripped while running, even when you correct, you know how important proprioception is. I try to balance on
    one leg for each half of my tooth brushing in the evening.

  • comment-avatar
    Matthew Musselman
    May 7, 2016 (7:07 am)

    I think practicing your balancing skills is good for your brain in general, and a helpful skill on the run for sure! Whenever I encounter a raised curb, and I’m not in a rush, I’ll attempt to run while balancing on the curb. It’s challenging but fun.