Balance Training for Athletes

Figure skater Nathan Chen. Image taken from Google

Figure skater Nathan Chen. Image taken from Google

Did you watch any of the winter Olympics this year? In watching the events through a PT lens what intrigued me this year more than in years past was how frequently athletes fell during their performances. In sports like figure skating, downhill skiing, and aerial skiing, athletes fell often, and remember, these athletes are the best in the world. Obviously Olympic athletes are always attempting to push the envelope when it comes to tricks and elements in a routine, just as you might push your limits in whatever it is you do for fitness.

I am a novice climber at best, but one thing I know from years of experience with other sports is that technique is imperative for efficient performance across the board. Balance, the ability to maintain the body’s center of mass over its base of support, is an element of technique that can easily be trained for increased finesse with climbing or almost any other sport.

Balance is ideally achieved by the brain’s organization of information from three systems: vision, somatosensory, and vestibular.

Vision: how well we see, accuracy of depth perception, and so on. Our eyes adjust to the amount of light that is available in our environment. How often do you climb, ski, run, etc in the dark and/or with a head lamp? Your brain relies on your vision differently in this situation than if you were doing your sport in the middle of a sunny day. Furthermore your brain should automatically tap into the other two systems if your vision is somehow compromised, i.e. if you’re in the dark.

Somatosensory: what we feel. More specifically our body uses proprioception, which is the ability to sense information about position, motion, and equilibrium of our body and limbs. The muscles, joints, and skin have receptors that are primarily sensitive to stretch and pressure that help our body sense where it is in space. For balance the sensory receptors of the neck and ankles are of primary importance because the neck sends information about which direction our head has turned, and the ankles send information about the body’s movements relative to the surface, and provides information about the supporting surface i.e hard, soft, uneven, large/small, etc.

Vestibular: Also known as “the inner ear”. This system is roughly the size of a dime and is embedded in the thickest part of our skull. It is not meant to be injured. It helps us sense both angular acceleration and linear movement. Let me explain.

  • Angular acceleration: the vestibular system has three semicircular canals on each side that senses angular motion. This means that when you turn your head in any combination of movement, this system sends information to your brain, eyes, and leg muscles to help your body maintain equilibrium regardless of your head movement. Dysfunction to this system can lead to vertigo. You may also experience dizziness or disorientation if the information from your vestibular system doesn’t match up with the information from the sensory receptors in your neck.

  • Linear acceleration: this part of the inner ear is sensitive to gravity. The best way I can explain it is, you know when you’re standing in an enclosed elevator and it goes up or down, or stops, and you know this not because of what you see but because of what you feel. Part of the reason that you can sense what direction the elevator is going is because of this portion of the inner ear.

Putting it all together: The brain performs sensory integration where it uses information from all of the above systems and then recruits muscles to control the legs, trunk, head, neck, and eyes to maintain both balance and clear vision during movement. This may seem pretty simple, but think about all the activities that people do and still maintain their balance: climbing, trail running or figure skating for example. See below for an example of how Olympic Gymnast Simone Biles relies on her balance systems during her gymnastic routine.

Image taken from Google

Image taken from Google

Why Practice?: I am currently reading the book Outliers, The story of success by Malcolm Gladwell. In it he writes, “The idea that excellence at performing a complex task requires a critical minimum level of practice surfaces again and again in studies of expertise. In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours”(Gladwell, 2008, p.40).

In terms of balance, pathway facilitation is the idea that with repetition it becomes easier for the brain to recognize information from the three systems and send nerve impulses down the pathway for muscle recruitment. In other words, with practice and repetition the brain has an easier time recruiting the muscles needed to perform a task and/or maintain balance, these nerve pulses can become automatic in a sense. What is so cool, at least to me as a PT, is that there is evidence that pathway facilitation can occur throughout our lifetime!

How to practice?

  1. There are several ways to challenge your balance. The easiest ways are to limit your reliance on vision or proprioceptive cues. Here are some simple things to try:

  • Stand on one foot, progress to eyes closed, can you do it for 30 seconds?

  • Stand heel to toe, progress to eyes closed, or turning your head.

  • Practice these exercises on the Oov or something challenging to stand on.

  • Get out your slack-line or try a slack block from local Park City company, SlackBlock. Click on the image to check out their website.

SlackBlock balance device

SlackBlock balance device

2. Below are a few links to articles I read about climbing specific balance exercises:

3. See an expert: In Outliers Malcolm Gladwell writes “People don’t rise from nothing. We do owe something to parentage and patronage. The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves. But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways that others cannot” (Gladwell, 2008, p.19).  In other words, he is saying our success is not because of true grit alone, but also because of taking advantage of the resources available to us. No matter what your fitness goals are whether it be climbing a 5.11, or playing in the park with your kids pain free, Sandy and I are here as a resource and an opportunity to help you rise to your highest potential. Train smart and rehab smart.

Shout out to dizzy folks: dizziness can be caused by a lot of different things. Infact, I call dizziness a garbage can term, because that one term can be used to describe other symptoms including lightheaded, vertigo, nausea, headache, fainting, etc. Some of these symptoms can be caused by impairments to the balance systems described above and can be common after a concussion/mild traumatic brain injury or in people that have migraines. If you are having “dizziness” symptoms, come see me for a consult!

Resources used for this blog post:  

The Vestibular Disorders Association, Waston, M.A., Black F.O., Crowson, M. (2008). The Human Balance System.

Gladwell, M. (2008) Outliers The story of success. New York, NY: Back Bay Books/Little, Brown and Company.


Written by Julia Pierson, DPT. To learn more about Julia and her education, check out her bio and CV.