By Roselie Rasmussen
Trails can be complex, shifting and slippery. When hiking, if you feel like you might slip and fall, then you’re more careful and use more effort. Over time, that extra effort can wear you out and cause issues such as knee pain. But there are ways to improve your balance that will give you more solid footing on trail.
What you want is to develop dynamic stability, so when a rock shifts under your foot you’re not thrown off balance, risking a tumble or potential injury. There are ways you can develop unshakable balance and enhance the reflexes that can save you from a hard landing.
Enhance your self-sensing system
Among our human senses that allow us to experience and interact with the world is our self-sense, or proprioception (proprio = self, ception = understanding). This “sense” is actually a collection of senses that range from the movement of the inner ear bones to the sensation of pressure on the bottoms of our feet to the nerve endings around our joints that get stretched or compressed and signal nearby muscles to contract if needed.
With a bit of practice — and play — we can develop a stronger sense of where our body is in space and how to adapt quickly. Training this self-sensing system has been demonstrated to reduce athletic injuries in comparison with stretching and more general training.
Train your joints
- In a standing position, allow your weight to sink down to your feet. Try to “let go” of your knees and hips.
- Picture the basin of your pelvis as a bowl and begin to rotate it so that water will pour out of that bowl in a circle. First out the front, then the sides and then the back. Go around in circles in both directions.
- Hold on to the back of a chair and bring your knee up toward your chin. Now move that leg out to the side and internally rotate it, swing it down and behind you, then bring it back to the starting position. Do these circles going one way and then switch directions. Do both hips.
- Place one hand on the front of your pelvis and the other on the front of your lower rib cage. In a shearing motion, move the two hands in opposite directions by moving your rips and lower body, first side to side and then front to back.
- Have a seat, and straighten and flex one knee at a time. As you straighten, rotate your toes outward, and as you flex, rotate them inward. You can also stand and flex your knees slightly while moving them together in a circular motion. Add some twisting motions by rotating your torso.
- Rotate your ankles, either in a weight-bearing position (you already did this if you chose the standing knee motions) or with your foot dangling. Draw circles with your toes, and then draw circles with your heels.
By moving our joints through their potential range daily, we help to place them on our sensory map, as well as strengthen the neural pathways of our reflexes. The movement also encourages joint health.
To reconnect with your feet
To develop the sense of where our feet meet the ground, we simply have to stimulate the many self-sensing nerve endings on the bottom of the foot. Try the following exercise.
- Sit in a comfortable cross-legged position, grasping one foot in both of your hands.
- With a firm grasp, begin to move the bones of the foot relative to each other. There is a lot of subtle mobility in the foot. All of the joints can wiggle a little.
- Grasp the ball of the foot in one hand and, with the other, give the base of each toe a gentle tug, one by one.
- Firmly grasp the ankle and use your fingers to press the top of your foot and the top of your heel away from the ankle (as though you were going to pop your foot off).
- Place your thumb on the inside of the bottom of your foot and the side of the first finger on the outside of the bottom of the foot and gently squeeze all the tissue there, working your way up and down the foot.
- Explore the bottom of the foot with both thumbs as though you were texting, pressing in here and there.
After you’ve done this on one foot, stand up. Notice any difference in the level of sensation you experience between the foot that you just worked and the other foot. The massaged foot may feel bigger and like it has greater contact with the floor, compared with the other foot, which might be harder to “find” on your body map.
Repeat everything on your opposite foot.
Put the pieces together
Now, let’s bring these new sensations out to the field.
For a simple exercise, walk across a grassy surface with awareness of how the bottoms of your feet connect with the ground. You can experiment with how much ease and looseness you can allow in your knees and hips as you walk.
If you take this same idea to a trail with uneven surfaces, you can notice how much the hips and low back move to accommodate slight elevations and depressions. This low back movement can be very relieving for cases of chronic tension in that area.
Now it’s time to work on exercises to develop the ability to move with flow and balance over uneven or unstable surfaces. Pick the starting point that best reflects your current ability level.
- Find a rock large enough to accommodate your entire foot. Ideally this rock will have one fairly flat side and the rest will be knobby and uneven.
- Place the rock flat side down so that it doesn’t tilt. Hold on to something for balance and stand on the rock with one foot, letting your foot and ankle sink into the rock. This is best done in footwear that’s a bit flexible. The idea is to let your ankle stretch and compress and move into a variety of positions. This helps all your joints work together to keep you upright and stable on uneven terrain.
- Turn the rock over so that it’s no longer stable. Continue to hold on to something and stand on the rock. Now your body has to sense and adjust your position rapidly as your environment shifts in unpredictable ways. This strengthens your body’s ability to respond rapidly to changes.
- Find several similar rocks and place them in two staggered rows, about 2 feet apart in both directions. The distance depends on the length of your stride. Place them flat sides down so they are stable. Walk down the row of rocks in a comfortable stride, placing each foot on one of the rocks. Try not to pause, but rather flow from one step into the next. If you have trekking poles, use them to help you keep your balance, but keep your body weight over the rocks.
- As an advanced balance exercise, turn the rocks over so they’re unstable, and walk down them, with or without using your trekking poles to help. Try to do this as a continuous motion, without pausing at any one rock. You’ll find that if you’re only just using the rock to push off, then the tippiness does not cause a problem for balance and stability.
The next time you’re out on trail, you can practice applying this. As your self-sensing awareness increases, you’ll develop better balance in motion — leading to stability with ease.
Roselie Rasmussen is an orthopedic massage therapist in Darrington. She enjoys backpacking, trail work and helping people do the activities they love. You can contact her or read more of her articles at OneHealthMassage.com.