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Got balance?

Fit to be Tried
By: Julie Young Journal Columnist
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Balance is a key element of efficient, enjoyable cross-country skiing. While some contend they simply do not possess balance, don’t be a victim of this belief. Balance is trainable and early winter, as we twiddle our thumbs eagerly awaiting the snow, presents an ideal opportunity to fine-tune balance with dry-land drills. As with all efficient movement, cross-country skiing requires three contributing components — joint range of motion, muscular mobility and strength, and a properly firing operating system known as the nervous system. Movement can be likened to a symphony. The nervous system acts as the conductor, coordinating and harmonizing the range of motion (fluid movements allowing storage and release of energy) and muscular strength (stability providing the foundation). In cross-country skiing this symphonic relationship results in propulsion and glide with less energy expenditure. Cross-country skiing demands more than muscular might — it depends significantly on our nervous system’s effective recruitment of muscles and the teamwork of the muscles to create sport-relevant movements. We improve by increasing the coordination between the nervous system, our software and the musculature, our hardware. Balance drills fire the nervous system, hone proprioception (system of pressure sensors in the joints, muscles and tendons from which the body gathers information to maintain balance) while training the smaller stabilizer muscles. These drills are multi-joint movements that require stabilizing strength. Stablizers are small muscles that support joints as well as large prime mover muscles. While some of these balance drills focus on general balance, others mimic cross-country specific movements — to implement sport-relevant muscle memory. I like to use balance drills, general and sport-relevant, as a warm-up for my strength and plyometric workouts. All of the balance drills take place single-legged and I format them in a series of circuits progressing from the floor to half-foam roller to dyna-disc. This pattern mirrors all of my conditioning exercises and drills, which evolve from simple to more complex. In this case we add complexity by increasing instability from floor to half-foam roller to dyna-disc. As with all of our movements — the focus is first on finding posture by engaging the trunk, and then initiating with purpose smooth, stable, strong movements from our center. One example of a balance circuit is to start by standing single-legged on the floor and work a deep knee flexion and extension. This movement simulates the sharp knee angle and supple ankle we incorporate to compress and drive the ski forward. As with all of our movements, my initial focus during these drills is to engage my trunk and find my posture — this is my anchor and balance point. Once I engage my posture I initiate the movement from the hip joint, focusing on working that important femur, hip independence, think of a Barbie or Ken doll. While I am flexing and extending, I am focusing on maintaining hip, knee, toe alignment — important in all of our movements and sports, equally relevant to cross-country skiing to establish and maintain that flat gliding ski. I further challenge the neuromuscular response system by swinging the arms, from the shoulders, in an alternating striding motion, while still working the deep knee flexion at different cadences and depths, to train upper and lower body disassociation, as well as balance. While continuing to work knee flexion, I progress the arms to a striding double pole motion and then extend my arms overhead to challenge my center of gravity. I finish the series – still standing on the one leg, composing and finding my center and balance, then closing my eyes. This seemingly simple balance-focused movement also effectively strengthens the glutes, quads and hips, as well as the previously mentioned small stabilizer muscles. You will feel every part of your standing leg and trunk working to find stability and balance – from the arch of your foot to your shoulders. I repeat this entire series on the other leg standing on the floor, then repeat single-legged on the half-foam roller and then dyno-disc. These balance drill series provide an opportunity to experiment and play with body awareness — and what it is that allows you individually to find your balance. I find my best balance when I engage my trunk — and then confidently create with purpose strong, smooth movements around that anchor point. With consistent practice, you will experience amazing improvement in balance, as well as condition the muscle stability and mobility. While in the initial session you may balance on one leg for a few seconds you will soon triumphantly single-legged stand through the entire series. Where those small stabilizer muscles may initially scream, after a few sessions they will supportively sing. See you down the trail for cross-country ski relevant single-leg strength conditioning, plyometrics – and taking it to the next step with dry-land technique and strutting it on the snow. Julie Young was a top U.S. professional cyclist for 12 years and has since transitioned to trail running and cross-country skiing. She is the owner of o2 Fitness and now coaches endurance athletes in the region. Check her out online at www.o2fitness.net.