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August 2003

Balancing Act

Secrets for staying on your feet from dancers, tightrope walkers, running backs, and more.

Seems like everyone these days is looking for balance-in their careers, their relationships, their checking accounts. Truth is, I’d settle for a little equilibrium when I’m descending a scree field or crossing a log bridge. Like many hikers, I’ve stumbled and fallen, and I’ve watched others wrench their knees and ankles. To learn new tricks for staying upright, I consulted experts in physical balance-exercise physiologists, dancers, circus clowns, snowboarders, and trail runners. Follow their advice, and you’ll walk smoothly across the trickiest terrain.

Do the wobble

Feeling off kilter? It could be all in your head, says C. C. Cunningham, an American Council on Exercise spokesperson who is taking a break from training hikers and climbers to finish her Ph.D. in motor learning and control. Your sense of balance is determined by information your brain gets from your eyes, your inner ear, and neural receptors in your joints and muscles. The key is to put yourself in awkward situations and force your brain to learn how to adjust.

Wobble boards at the gym are a good place to start, says Cunningham, but you should also perform exercises that mimic your stride patterns during boulder field and creek crossings. The best of these, says David Musnick, M.D., coauthor of Conditioning for Outdoor Fitness, is a forward lunge with a biceps curl, which builds balance, plus strength in your butt, abdomen, and thighs.

Warm up with a few lunges, then hoist a couple of hand weights (3 to 5 pounds). Lunge forward with one leg while performing a biceps curl with the opposite arm. Repeat the move using the other leg and arm. Once you can do it without wobbling, try walking forward while lunging and curling. Advanced option: Lunge with your front foot on a wobble board.

Payoff: Stable landings when you step over streams and crevasses, and down steep trails.

Run the ladder

Running backs get slaughtered in the NFL if they don’t bring some serious shake-and-bake to the field. But how do they develop the body control and quick, agile movements that make linebackers miss? We asked Jim Zorn, former NFL quarterback and a Seattle Seahawks coach.

Footwork drills, such as running nylon grids called agility ladders, can help. But there’s nothing like mimicking the real thing, Zorn says. “If I wanted to be the ultimate hiker, I’d figure out what kind of situations I’d be in on the trail, then I’d put myself in those situations in training.” Zorn, who regularly takes his team hiking on Mt. Rainier, says scrambling from boulders to trail or over deadfall requires some of the same techniques as football: Lower your center of gravity by keeping your hips, knees, and ankles bent, and be ready to spring in the direction of any opening.

To build agility, construct your own agility ladder. Use rope or nylon webbing, and lay out two “ladders” with rectangular rungs 16 inches wide and 18 inches apart. Place the ladders side by side. Run through, concentrating on accuracy over speed.

Payoff: Fast, precise footwork on loose rock, narrow trails, and steep sidehills.

Get crunched

No, we can’t turn you into a ballerina, but Connie Schrader, a dance professor at the University of North Carolina at Asheville and author of A Sense of Dance, thinks you can benefit by developing a dancer’s secret weapon: stronger abs. To appear fluid and controlled, she says, a dancer must constantly adjust her alignment. That requires exercises that build core muscle strength, like these.

>> Lie on your back with your knees bent, as if you’re doing crunches. Holding the full weight of your head in your hands so your neck is relaxed and your nose points toward the ceiling, tighten your abs and lift your head and shoulders 2 to 3 inches off the floor. Hold the position through five steady breaths. Return to the starting position. Do as many as you can.

>> Stand, lengthen the back of your neck, and slightly lower your chin. Now, practice the following three movements at the same time: Contract your abdominal muscles to support your spine, drop your tailbone toward the floor by tightening your butt, and lengthen your neck as if your head were a helium balloon.

Payoff: Better body control, which translates to fewer falls and injuries.

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