Updated: March 20th, 2022
Proprioception could be the key to keeping you injury-free.

I understand that getting serious about your training can become overwhelming. With each article you read, there is more and more to consider. I mean hey, you want to make sure you’re eating right, hydrating enough to fuel your running. But also there are training implications; remember to stretch, warm up properly, and occupy your mind for the longer stints, let alone getting the right kit for the weather.

But this, today, is a key training principle (I know, a lot of things are key, must knows, and vital to incorporate) and proprioception training is no exception.It is one of the main priorities of elite, and well-seasoned athletes in virtually every sport, yet often ignored when it comes to beginners or recreational runners even those with training planslargely due to the lack of understanding and time, but I’m about to change your whole running game, something you can work on whilst brushing your teeth or waiting for the kettle to boil (or both!)

Happy runner

What is proprioception?

Pronounced pro-pri-o-cep-shun, it is a word that denotes neural transmitters within your body. Your nervous system has pathways to every muscle, tendon, ligament, joint space and even the skin, and it sends information from them to the brain and back again subconsciously.

What does proprioception do?

The neural pathways within your body send messages from the brain can take many different routes to get to where it needs to be – foot, big toe, little finger etc. The more streamlined and direct the message or brain information, then the quicker the message and more likely you are, to be injury-freeespecially regarding joints and ligaments!

Joints and their surrounding support system – ligaments – primarily, are more prone to injuries simply due to poor proprioception. A joint is vulnerable to twisting and excess movement and if you have neglected proprioceptive training, then your body wont be able to respond in time…

Here’s an example:

The sun’s out, you’re feeling good and running seems easy today. Your amidst beautiful scenery, the trees and flowers are blooming, spring has arrived. You take an off-road path, and with your head held high, you don’t see it coming… the tree root.

Runner stops to hold lower leg, in pain

Of course, caught unawares, your foot lands half on the root… – At that exact moment, your proprioceptors will be alert of the danger underfoot. They send a message to the brain ‘uh oh, sort this out before you roll your ankle’ it says. The brain will scramble to organise what to do next and send messages back down the line to your foot on the tree root, vulnerable and unstable. This can go one of two ways:

  1. The brain takes too long and momentum takes over. Your body weight is not corrected and you end up rolling your ankle (ouchie!).
  2. Your brain organises itself quick as a flash, you subconsciously correct your body position, your ankle snaps back into a stable position and no harm is done, you carry on as if nothing happened.

Essentially, the more you practise and train your proprioceptors, the quicker this response will be.*

Injured runner holding his ankle

Who should be focusing on proprioception?

As I said before, most if not all the pros in every sport will have to work on their proprioceptive capabilities. But how we do it may differ from sport to sport and person to person.

Sports such as running uses unpredictable terrain, epically trail and fell runners. Going from loose stones to soft and sloppy mud to farmland with grass so long you can’t see your footing, with declines so steep it’s a wonder runners don’t fall. The constant instability of runners and the terrain (and shoes) they decide to run in significantly impacts the risk of injury. That’s not to say these important proprioception exercises will be lost on road and track runners, oh no.

I can think of a marathon I did, where someone collapsed right in front of me at the last mile. Utterly fatigued and in a good amount of pain, I had a split second to decide:

  1. Do I get tangled up with the poor guy on the floor and end up right there with him?
  2. OR

  3. Can I hurdle, sidestep, and avoid this poor runner by any means necessary? …and can my body cope with that?

A scenario I’m sure you’ve been a part of before, as a road or track runner. Stopping at busy refuelling stations, avoiding all those littered cups and water bottles en route. And my favourite? Dogs who bound over and want to chase you, and inevitably tripping you up… how strong is your proprioception game here?

Track runners falling over each other 2012olympics

How do I improve my proprioception?

You could consider that proprioception plays a pivotal role in your balance and coordination skills – and you’d be right. Professional athletes can dedicate time even a whole workout to work on their proprioception which if you can do that, great!

The likely answer for you full-time working, full-time parenting, responsible adult with a heck of a commute… and still managing to fit in marathon training… no you don’t have any spare time. However, there are some ways we can get around this (and even get the kids involved should you need to).

Exercises to develop proprioception

Okay, here’s the thing – you likely won’t ‘feel like it’s working’ because it is not a particularly strenuous activity. It’s great as part of rehabilitation or a recovery session with your foam roller. But you are likely not to sweat from these exercises, which means they can be done anywhere and everywhere!

  1. Stand on one leg
  2. How IS your balance? Test it. One leg might be better than the other, that’s fine. Keep working so they get equal. Standing on one leg too easy? Tiptoe. Close an eye. Close both eyes. Now stand on top of a pillow, on one leg?

    Get the kids on this one too. – I call it the flamingo game, and it goes down a treat.

    *This exercise is the most effective and can be done whilst waiting for the kettle to boil, brushing your teeth, putting your hat and scarf on. This can be slotted into ANY daily activity, now there really is no excuse.*

    Standing on one leg for balance

  3. Train with a Bosu
  4. Most of us are resistance training alongside running (even if you are not, you could start now). The programmes like to use exercises such as squats, lunges and deadlifts in a variety of different ways. And whilst as runners we are not looking for mass strength with heavyweights, adding a bosu is a perfect alternative to level up training, and incorporate proprioception to your workouts already. By lunging onto/off from the bosu, squatting on it. Two-foot jump onto the bosu and stick the landing before stepping off.

    Bosu training session

  5. Clock face lunges
  6. As simple as it sounds, imagine you are standing at the centre of a clock face – your legs are the clock’s hands. For every number on the clock, you lunge out and back to the centre. Swapping legs at 12 and 6 o’clock.

Clock lunges

An exercise with an unstable element or eyes closed will always add difficulty. So whatever you are doing in your workouts currently, could you do it with your eyes closed?

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