Keeping Balance in Your Workouts

(Disclaimer: I received a month at Spindle Fitness to experience and review. As always, I only review products or workouts that I try and love.)


Last October, I had a running injury scare – the kind that makes you hold your breath, cross your fingers and hesitantly schedule an appointment to see a physical therapist. I was one week out from the Detroit Marathon and looking forward to the satisfaction of a well-earned PR … and then I felt the pain. A stinging sensation unexpectedly shot up from the base of my foot. I ignored it at first, but I reluctantly realized that it wasn’t going to stop anytime soon.

In a pre-race panic, I scheduled a quick consultation with a physical therapist at my gym. She had me doing basic balance exercises as soon as I walked in. I found that I could hardly stand on one foot without wobbling excessively; frankly, it was a little embarrassing. Here I was, in peak marathon physical condition (or so I thought), and I couldn’t even stand on one leg for 10 seconds without nearly falling over.

As a runner herself, she knew all too well about how bullheaded runners can be about finishing what they started. Thankfully, she gave me the go-ahead to race (and, yes, I got that PR). But with that go-ahead I also got a lot of advice and areas to focus on before my next endurance endeavor, and most of that advice could be summed up in two simple points: (1) Work on balance. (2) Work on strength.

Here’s the thing about running – you’re never on both feet at the same time. As Coach Adelman of Nike Run Club often reminds us, “when you run a marathon, you’re running 13.1 miles on each leg. If you are running with both feet on the ground at the same time, you’re doing it wrong.”

I started strength training this past winter. I’d like to say it was because I was taking my physical therapist’s advice, but it was mainly because the Chiberia temps kept my outdoor runs short and I LOATHE the treadmill. If I’m being honest, I had successfully avoided going anywhere near a bench press since high school basketball. And man, strength training is tough. It beats you up. It brings you pain. But then it builds you up, physically and mentally.

And balance… well, I kept that in the backburner. One thing at a time, right?

This past May, I started going to Spindle fitness, a personal training studio in Lincoln Park. As a runner going into another season of marathon training, my main focus at Spindle was to continue building strength and finally work on the whole “balance” thing.

Jeff Shapiro, owner and lead programmer of Spindle fitness, listened to my balance woes and strength goals and created a fitness program unique to my needs. This included a lot of one-legged exercises and balance-focused stretches which undoubtedly tested my patience. But within a just a month, I witnessed a steady improvement in my strength – but most importantly, I was finally making noticeable strides in improving my balance.

I caught up with Jeff to ask him a little more about the importance of balance. (Pssst: runners in the midst of fall marathon training, pay attention!)

Q: As a previous runner yourself, I’m sure you know about the scary reality of running injuries. Why do you think working on balance is especially important for injury prevention as a runner?

A: I am no stranger to running injuries. I’ve had pain in my ankles, shins, knees, hips and even my shoulders from excessive running. At Spindle, we believe that balance comes from proper mobility, stability and strength surrounding each joint. This is vital to injury prevention in running as your body is in constant repetitive motion and impact from the ground. If your body is not in balance, compensations occur that eventually lead to bigger issues.

Q: How does working on balance make someone a better runner?

A: We think of balance as trying to eliminate energy leakage from your body. If you think of yourself standing on one foot and wobbling all over the place to stay there, you waste a ton of energy trying to hold the position and stay stable. If you can build proper strength, mobility, and stability throughout your muscular system, you effectively stop the energy from leaking out and can put it towards increasing your cadence and/or stride length. Also, it keeps you off the sideline so you can keep running!

Q: Balance obviously isn’t just for runners. How can people benefit in general fitness by working on their balance? 

A: We urge our members to train for life. What we want for everyone is to train their body to live the best quality of life for the longest possible time. Balance is key to this. Injuries due to improper balance are not exclusive to running. They can happen anywhere, at any time, and a strong, mobile and stable body will be more resilient than an undertrained body. When we see people shake or wobble during an exercise, we think “oh hey, this person’s body is learning right now!” In time, and with practice, we know that they will shake less as they master the movement. Some coaches in the training world say real strength is making the hard look easy. In our experience, the people that can make a heavy challenging lift look easy are the most resilient both inside and outside the gym. We strive for that with all of our members.

Q: Why do you think people often do not take the time to work on balance? 

A: People always gravitate towards what they are good at. Runners want to run. Yogi’s want to do yoga. Body builders want to look in the mirror (just kidding?). People will care less about it because working on balance is not fun. These days, everyone is so focused on a faster time or a new PR, that they forget the importance of a balanced body, often to their own demise. At Spindle, we know this work is not fun, but it is our job to make sure our members get what they need, so we figure out ways to build it into everyone’s program.

Q: As a number cruncher, I loved seeing the data for my muscle weight / body fat percentage / etc. during my fit assessment at Spindle. It helped make me realize that my right side is definitely a little more muscle-heavy than my left. Why is it important to try to balance out your muscle strength across your body?

A: Imbalance like this will not only create higher potential for injury, it will also affect your performance. The body is one unit, so if there is a weak link, it is going to effect the whole thing. In these situations, there will be compensations in other areas to account for the lack of strength. Here, we do not have a single member that is perfectly symmetrical, nor does any other facility in the city. We also have many members that have imbalances that will never be completely remedied. This does not mean a person cannot run or compete, however it does enhance the importance that mobility, stability, and strength in their body is as balanced as possible.

Q: Any stretches or exercises you would recommend for people trying to work on their balance (particularly for runners as fall marathon training approaches)? 

A: The honest and annoying answer is that it depends on the person. Everyone we work with at Spindle has a unique body that needs different exercises. Some typical exercises that a runner will see at Spindle are:

– Various exercises in half kneeling position (on one knee with the feet tight roped) as this will challenge your stability throughout different movements

– Single leg deadlifts and squats for both balance and strength

– Deadlifts and heavy hip bridges to increase your glute strength. The glutes are the engine for running, we need those to be strong!

– Plantar and dorsiflexion mobility work

– Lateral band walks and Monster walks

Though balance is definitely something that is frustrating to work on, I can already feel the benefits in my running (and overall gracefulness …or lack thereof). Continuing to focus on balance will remain a top priority for me as I move into my marathon training schedule next week.

How do you incorporate balance into your overall fitness? Sharing is caring – let us know in the comments!


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About Cass Gunderson

Cass hails from the southwest suburbs as a proud White Sox fan and a graduate of University of Illinois. By day, Cass is a full-time student at the University of Chicago's Booth Graduate Business School. Before deciding to throw away all her money to go back to school, Cass worked for a private equity firm that buys technology companies. Raised as the youngest in a family of older brothers, Cass grew up a tomboy and remains active in sports. To her mother’s satisfaction, Cass learned how to embrace her feminine side in college and has developed an interest for fitness activities that require spandex as opposed to knee-length basketball shorts. In her spare time, she runs a lot because it is cheaper than paying for real therapy. Cass has completed four marathons and one ultramarathon (she claims she'll never do this to herself again, but that's TBD). She can still be found on the basketball courts in Lincoln Park wearing knee-length basketball shorts.