Balancing Act

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

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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.

Learn to turn

The secret to staying upright, says Adam Chase, an adventure racer, ultra-distance trail runner, and coauthor of The Ultimate Guide to Trail Running, is mastering and making on-the-fly adjustments. For that, he’s studied fast-forward sports that entail quick, steady movement with little regard for balance. Here are two skills Chase recommends for hikers.

>> Anticipation. “I grew up a mogul skier and learned instead of looking at your skis, you look three moguls ahead,” says Chase. “Think about how you’ll handle the next turn, and your feet will follow.”

>> A sense of your body in space. “Learning a flip turn in swimming helped me,” he says. “Get comfortable with being in an unusual position in the water, and it’ll make you feel more coordinated on uneven ground.”

Payoff: Catlike reactions to sudden trail hazards, like tumbling rocks and slippery roots.

Build your own gym

Gregg Davis, a snowboard instructor in Breckenridge, CO, and member of the American Association of Snowboard Instructors demo team, spends a fair bit of time in the air upside down. This requires both confidence and balance. Davis refines both using a few common household items.

>> Fill a 2-liter plastic bottle with water, cap it, and wrap it with duct tape. Put the bottle on a carpeted surface, place a board across the bottle and bingo: You’ve built your own balance workout tool. “First just see how long you can stand on it,” says Davis. Work up to tricks.

Payoff: Added confidence and stability when hopping on boulders or across streams.

Walk the high wire

Bello Nock, star of the 133rd edition of Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, dances on a wire 30 feet above the ground for a living. He also bungee jumps, pilots the flying trapeze, and rides a motorcycle in a metal sphere called the “Globe of Death.” And then there’s his hair, a feat of balance in itself. It stands 8 inches straight up from his scalp like a strawberry blond El Capitan.

Good balance, Nock says, requires strength, confidence, focus, thoroughly vetted equipment, and “practice, practice, practice.” (The ‘do requires a healthy spritz of Kenra hairspray.) If you want to walk the tightrope, grab a length of nylon webbing. Choose two trees, and tie the line between them 10 inches off the ground, leaving a little slack. Walk the line, holding your balance by bending your knees and keeping your shoulders and hips centered over the line.

Payoff: Wobble-free walking across knife-edge ridges and log bridges.

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