Welcome to the last chapter in the “Training” section of Beyond Training: Mastering Endurance, Health & Life.
We’ve come a long way in this book so far, baby. And it’s almost time to move…beyond training, and into concepts such as nutrition, lifestyle, detoxification and many other concepts that are going to help you tackle the paradox between health and performance.
Next week, when we move on to Part 3 of this book, you’re going to learn everything you need to know about recovering from workouts, healing injuries fast, fixing overtraining and adrenal fatigue, and essentially turning yourself into Wolverine from X-Men.
But today, you’re going to discover the final missing element of nearly every endurance training program. This is the element that allows you to run without appearing like you just gave birth to a rhino, manage a bicycle without swerving like Floyd Landis on whiskey, and swim without looking like Tarzan on crack.
The missing element is called balance. And you’re about to learn how to train your eyes, ears and joints to become a balance ninja. This section may be slightly more brief than the previous sections, since the training methods, foods and supplements you’ve already learned about for enhancing Strength, Power, Mobility and Speed are going to have excellent crossover application to improving your balance.
If you’ve missed any of the previous chapters, be sure to check out the handy-dandy links at the bottom of this post, leave your comments below the post, and for heaven’s sake stay tuned for the launch of the brand new BenGreenfieldFitness phone app tomorrow (just sign up my free newsletter and you’ll find out about the free app as soon as it comes out).
Essential Element 5: Balance
Picture in your mind, if you will, a runner. A really ugly runner. They don’t need to necessarily have an ugly face, although you can imagine that if it helps, but a really ugly gait. A gait only a mother could love.
This runner’s hip collapses to the side each time the foot strikes the ground, their foot flips awkwardly outwards each time their leg goes out behind them, and they land with a forceful, seemingly painful “oomph”.
For four years, I managed an exercise physiology and biomechanics laboratory where runners and triathletes of all shapes and sizes came to get their gait analyzed with high speed video cameras and treadmills. And I would witness this same ugly running pattern over and over again.
Just a slap, land, sway, kick, slap, land, sway, kick, over and over again. And a surefire way to exhaust the body with every subsequent step.
Interestingly, when I had these runners step off the treadmill and attempt simple balance drills such as standing on one leg with the eyes open or closed, walking from one end of the room to another, or jumping off one leg, the same movement deficits persisted.
Why was this?
Surprisingly, the answer is not lack of brute strength, inability to produce power or speed deficits. In many cases, it’s not even a mobility issue.
Instead, it’s a pure and simple lack of balance (12).
So in this section, you’re going to discover exactly how to maximize your balance and the exact training methods, lifestyle choices, foods and supplements to get the most mileage out of the three most important components that determine your balance – your eyes, your ears and your joints.
What Is Balance?
Balance is simply the ability to maintain a line of gravity (technically, a vertical line from center of gravity) within a base of support with minimal postural sway or collapse (1).
Yes, that description was a little physicsey. So here’s a better explanation:
Balance is the ability to maintain the body’s center of mass over its base of support.
Better? Need something more simple yet? Here you go:
Balance is being able to move around efficiently without falling on your ass.
If you’re running, balance (and that line of gravity) look like this:
If you’re swimming balance, in a more horizontal sense of the word, would look like this:
And if you’re riding a bicycle, balance – more specifically lack thereof – would look a bit like this (yes, that is Albert Einstein).
Maintaining balance requires coordination of three different sensory systems:
1) Vestibular system – the sense organs in your head, primarily your ears, which regulate your equilibrium and give you directional information as it relates to your head position. (6)
2) Somatosensory system – the nerves called “propriocepters” in your joints, along with the pressure and vibratory sense information in both your skin and your joints (2).
3) Visual system: The visual ability of your eyes to figure out where you head and body are in space, and also your spatial location relative to other objects (5).
For you to be properly balanced, you have to have each of these three components optimized. In other words, you gotta have good eyes, good ears, and healthy joints.
Training Strategies For Increasing Balance
Let’s start with your vestibular system. I promise not to delve too deeply in the science of your ears, but just a quick overview will you understand how you can optimize this system a bit better.
Sensory information about things like motion, equilibrium, and where your body is at in space is provided by something called a vestibular apparatus, which is a part of your ear that includes the utricle, saccule, and three semicircular canals (7). The utricle and saccule detect gravity and front-to-back or side-to-side movement. In contrast, the semicircular canals detect rotational movement, and they’re filled with this special fluid called endolymph.
When your head rotates in the direction sensed by one of those semicircular canals, the endolymphatic fluid within the canal lags behind because of inertia and exerts pressure against the canal’s sensory receptor (10). When this happens, the receptor then sends impulses to your brain about what kind of movement is happening.
So how can you train and care for these precious vestibular apparati? It comes down to two strategies – you either subject yourself to quick change in linear or rotational movement, and you care for your precious ear anatomy.
-Avoid loud music, loud sounds and cell phone radiation. The first two probably make good sense to you. That’s right. Turn down your .mp3 player and moderate your rock concert attendance. But last one might be a bit of a head scratcher. So try this: go to a cell phone store and check the label on any phone. It tells you not to bring the phone anywhere near your head.
There’s a reason for that: electromagnetic field (EMF) from your phone is one of the best ways to fry the fragile outsides of your head and affect your hearing. Later in this book, we’ll dig into EMF and phone radiation a bit more, but for now, you can read the book “Zapped” by Anne Louise Gittleman, start to dig into papers like this (4), and grab yourself an airtube headset on phone (I recommend Envi airtubes).
-Go unshod as much as possible, or use minimalist footwear. Big, supportive, built-up shoes do all the balance work for you. If you have no feel for the ground because you’re spending the day in overpriced moon boots designed to “control” your foot, then you’re denying all those tiny micro-motions that feed into your vestibular system. As you practice using minimal footwear, try to stand or walk on different areas of your foot, such as the outside, ball or heel of foot. This forces your vestibular system to microadjust to new linear and rotational movements.
-Balance on one leg while keeping gaze on something stationary, eventually train yourself look at objects farther away, then progress to closing your eyes complete, and finally add an unstable surface . While this is also a great way to train your visual and somatosensory balance systems, the small fluctuations that occur in your balance when you’re practicing this technique (especially with your eyes closed) also train your vestibular system. My “rule of thumb” is to do at least five single leg squats on each leg, eyes closed, every morning, and I’ve recently added a half foam roller. When I first began, I couldn’t even perform one squat without my form falling to pieces, but now my single leg stance is incredibly stable.
-Look for things to stand on everywhere around you; narrow ridges, sidewalk posts, rails on fences, the back of a bench in the park. In my phone app podcast episode with Darryl Edwards, who owns the fantastic FitnessExplorer website, I describe how once a week I do a 30 minute “fitness exploring” circuit in a park near my house. It consists of running three giant laps around the park, with each lap including balancing acts on random park benches, single leg hops on and off curbs, clambering up walking across a wooden fence, and jumping onto picnic tables. This type of play, also know as Parkour, or MovNat, is a fantastic way to build your vestibular system, especially if you keep your .mp3 player off.
Your skin, muscles, and joints all contain sensory receptors (proprioceptors) that are sensitive to stretch or pressure in the surrounding tissues (10). For example, you feel increased pressure in the front part of the soles of your feet you lean forward. The sensory receptors in your foot automatically send impulses to your brain that help you recognize where your body is in space – even if your eyes are closed or your ears are plugged.
The sensory impulses in your neck and ankles are especially important. Proprioceptive cues from your neck tell your brain the direction in which your head is turned. Cues from your ankles indicate the body’s movement relative to the unique characteristics of the surface you’re standing on (8) (for example: hard, soft, slippery, uneven, etc.).
So how can you maximize the quality of these cues? Here are my top tips for improving your somatosensory balance:
-Stand one legged or two legged on unstable surfaces such as wobble boards, thick balance mats or balance disc pillows. By adjusting both the surface quality and stability of what you’re standing on, you stimulate greater proprioception. I’m a bit wary advocating heavy overhead presses while wobbling around on a bring pink balance pillow at the gym, or even doing something dumb like a barbell squat on a stability ball – but consider the other, safer things you can do in an unbalanced or novel surface state, such as talking on the phone or standing at a standing workstation. If you really want to take this to the extreme, do what I do and try walking up a slippery riverbed with tiny stones that change your surface and texture with every step. That’s proprioceptive training on steroids. Just remember a helmet.
-Do side or front leg kicks with band or cable. This one of my favorite exercises for building knee stability and single leg stability while also improving proprioception. It can also help tremendously with eliminating knee pain that stems from poor kneecap tracking and weak quads. You simply attach one end of the cable or band to your ankle, stand on one leg, and either kick out to the front or across to the side, while trying not to support yourself with your arms and hands.
-Use a mini-trampoline or vibration platform. Both trampolines and vibration platforms are also fantastic unstable platforms to stand on and practice single-leg stance phases on, with the trampoline having the added advantage of including a jumping and landing phase. You can easily get either of these devies for home use.
-Stand on one leg at elevation. Elevated surfaces send an instant cue to your brain that you’re in danger, and can upregulate quality and frequency proprioceptive cues. Hence the fence walking and park bench balancing I do in my fitness exploring. If you’re not game to wander around a city or park getting strange glances, other options include home balance beams, or simply standing one legged on a slightly elevated surface at the gym, such as a step bench or box. Hip hikes are a great way to kill two birds with one stone for this activity, as they strength your outer glutes and simultaneously build balance on an elevated surface.
Your visual balance system is comprised of sensory receptors in your retina called rods and cones. When light strikes the rods and cones, they send impulses to the brain that provide visual cues about how your head, body or limbs are oriented relative to other objects (5). Most of us our visual balance too often, to the neglect of somatosensory or vestibulocochlear sense, but nonetheless, taking care of your visual system is important, and here’s how:
-Use blue light blocking glasses when on computer, and take breaks. I wrote about glare and blue light blocking strategies quite extensively in my post about how to beat insomnia and get a better night’s sleep. One of the best ways to destroy your visual system for life (in addition to extensively disrupting your sleep patterns) is to spend the day staring at a screen (3). If you ever feel dizziness, headache, lightheadedness, or twitching around your eyes, you’re probably straining your eyes too much. For the same reason, it’s important avoid small fonts and reading in rooms with low amounts of light.
Fortunately, there a number of apps that remind you to briefly stop working, or to focus your vision elsewhere, like Awareness, WorkRave, Time Out, and ProtectYourVision. You can also simply follow the the 20-20-20 rule, which says that for every 20 minutes you spend staring at the computer, you should spend 20 seconds looking at objects about 20 feet away.
-Play a sport that requires eye tracking. Let’s face it – about the most complex visual exercise that endurance athletes get is looking around while riding a bike. But eye tracking activities that actually build, train or maintain eye muscle activity are few and far between. This is why cross-training sports such as soccer, golf, tennis, basketball or even ping-pong aren’t only good for training the arm, leg and core muscles you’re not using, but also for keeping your eyes on top of their game.
-Sleep 7-8 hours per night. Sleep is extremely anabolic for your entire body, but it’s especially effective at relaxing your visual system and relieving strain on your eyes. If you’ve ever had mysterious twitch in your eye that just wouldn’t go away (a condition called myokymia), it was likely due to lack of sleep. Lack of sleep can also lead to ischemic optic neuropathy, which is damage to the optic nerve from lack of blood supply. Glaucoma is another condition that can result from lack of sleep, and can lead to complete loss of your valuable peripheral vision, as well as blindness. Read this article for all my best sleep enhancing tips.
-Try Bates Method. If your visual system is really suffering, you may want to try something called The Bates Method.(9). This method involves a series of eye exercises designed to strengthen the muscles in the eye but also to strengthen the mental connection between the brain and the eye, and many individuals with poor vision have found that with practice, glasses and contact lenses become unnecessary.
-Use “The Vision Gym”. The good folks over at Z-Health (more details below) have developed a program called “The Vision Gym”. This is an online program that teaches you simple 10 minute eye exercises to enhance advanced visual acuity skills such as depth perception, peripheral range, saccadic movement (how fast and accurately your eyes move when you read or scan), visual acuity and color and contrast discrimination. It’s basically a “modernized” version of the Bates Method and is the top program I would personally implement prior to turning to optometric correction if my vision ever begins to fail.
If you really want to learn more about how each of these different balance system integrates with your nervous system as a whole, a good resource is Z-Health, which is a program that teaches the general public how to strengthen their balance and nervous systems, certifies fitness professionals to specifically address these biological systems, and provides books and programs to teach you how to make your these systems stronger.
Specifically, Z-Health is based around sensory integration training, in which you train your nervous system to get accurate information from the visual, somatosensory and vestibular systems, so that you do a better job knowing where your body where it is in space, how fast it is moving, and what movements ranges are “safe”. For more information, listen to this interview I did with the folks at Z-Health.
Food & Strategies For Increasing Balance
This is the easy part.
The foods and and supplements which you learned about for increasing your mobility will all strengthen your somatosensory system, while the foods and supplements for power and speed will enhance your visual system. So go back and review those sections if necessary.
But when it comes to your vestibulocochlear system, there is one primary element that tends to fly under the radar: folate. A study presented at the 2009 American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery Foundation (AAO-HNSF) Annual Meeting found that men over the age of 60 who have a high intake of foods and supplements high in folates have a 20 percent decrease in risk of developing hearing loss (11). This is the largest study to examine the beneficial relationship between folates and hearing loss.
Take caution however: folate is a general term for a group of water soluble b-vitamins naturally found in food, while folic acid refers to the potentially harmful, oxidized synthetic compound commonly used in dietary supplements and food fortification. Because there are risks associated with folic acid intake from supplement sources, it’s best to get your folates from food. The best sources of dietary folate are vegetables such as romaine lettuce, spinach, asparagus, turnip greens, mustard greens, parsley, collard greens, broccoli, cauliflower and beets. If you soak them and prepare them properly, which you’ll learn how to do later in this book, lentils are also good. And if you’re feeling more adventurous, calf’s liver and chicken liver are also excellent folate sourcs.
Gear for Increasing Balance
If you’re using much of the gear you’ve learned about in the sections on Strength, Power, Mobility and Speed, then you’re already equipped to naturally stimulate your vestibulocochlear, somatosensory and visual systems.
And as I’ve already alluded to, you should try to add some balance tools and gear to your home gym equipment. You don’t need all of these things, but tools like a mini-trampoline or vibration platform, wobble boards, thick balance mat, stability ball, balance disc pillow or a half foam roller can all come in handy.
In addition to challenging your joints, protect your eyes and ears (3). Use Gunnar glasses or some other blue light blocking glasses when you’re using your computer or spending lots of time on screens. Use an airtube headset (pictured left) when you’re talking on your phone, and avoid bringing your phone near your head.
I believe that as science progresses, we’ll be exposed to better methods and research for mitigating the effects of modern living on our delicate balance systems, but in the meantime, be sure to check out websites such as LessEMF.com and LifeHacker.com, both of which tend to have good health tips for you if technology such as computers and phones are a regular part of your life.
So that’s balance.
When was the last time you tried standing on one leg while doing an exercise at the gym, like an overhead press? Heck, when was the last time you tried standing on one leg while brushing your teeth or working in the kitchen?
When was the last time you thought about taking care of your eyes? Your ears? Your joints?
Sure, you can keep up all that fancy Chi running, Pose running, cycling on rollers, walking on balance beams, Total Immersion swimming and every other endurance balancing technique that’s out there – but until you begin taking care of the elements of your body responsible for providing you with balance, you won’t be maximizing your results.
And worse yet, you’ll find that if you don’t use the three systems you just learned about, you lose them faster.
So use your eyes, ears and joints, protect them too, grow their capabilities, and leave your comments, questions, feedback, thoughts, proposed edits and anything else you’d like to say below this post!
Links To Previous Chapters of “Beyond Training: Mastering Endurance, Health & Life”
Part 1 – Introduction
-Preface: Are Endurance Sports Unhealthy?
Part 2 – Training
–Chapter 4: Underground Training Tactics For Enhancing Endurance – Part 1
–Chapter 4: Underground Training Tactics For Enhancing Endurance – Part 2
–Chapter 5: The 5 Essential Elements of An Endurance Training Program That Most Athletes Neglect – Part 1: Strength
–Chapter 5: The 5 Essential Elements of An Endurance Training Program That Most Athletes Neglect – Part 2: Power & Speed
–Chapter 5: The 5 Essential Elements of An Endurance Training Program That Most Athletes Neglect – Part 3: Mobility
–Chapter 5: The 5 Essential Elements of An Endurance Training Program That Most Athletes Neglect – Part 4: Balance
Coming in Part 3 – Recovery…
-Importance of when training adaptations actually occur (during the rest and recovery period) and show how to recover with lightning speed, including every beginner-to-advanced method such as ice, cold laser, PEMF, compression, electrostim, grounding, earthing, cold-hot contrast, ultrasound, etc…
-All about overtraining and exactly how to identify it, avoid it, and bounce back from it as quickly as possible, including a focus on self quantification methods such as heart rate variability and pulse oximetry, and biomarker testing for hormones, vitamins, minerals, etc…
-Beginner-to-advanced stress relief techniques, relaxation and sleep techniques for both home, as well as for traveling – including managing late nights, loss of sleep, napping, jetlag, etc.
-Advanced sleep-hacking methods using artificial light mitigation, binaural beats, etc…
-And much more!
1.) Anderson, K. (2005). The impact of instability resistance training on balance and stability. Sport Medicine, 35(1), 43-53.
2.) Augustine, James R. (2008). Human Neuroanatomy. San Diego, CA: Academic Press. p. 360. ISBN 978-0-12-068251-5.
3.) Davison JA, Patel AS, Cunha JP, Schwiegerling J, Muftuoglu O (July 2011). “Recent studies provide an updated clinical perspective on blue light-filtering IOLs”. Graefes Arch. Clin. Exp. Ophthalmol. 249 (7): 957–68.
4.) Goldsworthy, A. (2012, March). The biological effects of weak electromagnetic fields. Retrieved from http://www.cellphonetaskforce.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/Biol-Effects-EMFs-2012-NZ2.pdf
5.) Hansson EE, Beckman A, Håkansson A (December 2010). “Effect of vision, proprioception, and the position of the vestibular organ on postural sway”. Acta Otolaryngol. 130 (12): 1358–63.
6.) S. M. Highstein, R. R. Fay, A. N. Popper, editors (2004). The vestibular system. Berlin: Springer. ISBN 0-387-98314-7.
7.) Kimura R.S. (1969). Distribution, structure and function of dark cells in the vestibular labyrinth. Ann. Otol. Rhinol. 78, 542-561.
8.) Martinez, F. (2013). Effects of 6-week whole body vibration training on the reflex response of the ankle muscles: a randomized controlled trial. International Journal of Sports Therapy, 8(1), 15-24.
9.) Pollack, Philip (1956). “Chapter 3: Fallacies of the Bates System”. The Truth about Eye Exercises. Philadelphia: Chilton Company.
10.) Saladin, Kenneth S. Anatomy & Physiology: The Unity of Form and Function, Sixth Edition. 6th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010.
11.) Stachler, R. (2012). Clinical practice guideline: sudden hearing loss. Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery, (March), S1-39.
12.) Tartaruga, M. (2012). The relationship between running economy and biomechanical variables in distance runners. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 83(8), 367-75.