Flamingos do it as a matter of course. They appear upright, composed and in control. Humans do it, often reluctantly, with a fit of the giggles, flailing arms and a wobble or two. Yet learning to stand on one leg is one of the easiest, cheapest and most simple action you can take as a runner to improve not only your current performance, but your overall physical balance for the rest of your life.
If you slow down and observe running motion, you’ll notice that it is essentially a one-legged sport. Whether sprinting on the flat, slogging up a hill or bounding down the other side, only one of your feet is ever in contact with the ground at a time. Each leg works in turn, creating the power, drive and lift to propel you and your entire bodyweight forwards. That’s a awful lot to ask of one leg!
By learning to stand on one leg well, you can improve not only your general leg strength but also your proprioception; that’s the tiny movements that your network of muscles and nerves make when your foot lands on the ground. When you strike a smooth, even surface, such as a road or pavement, you need your proprioception to be good, but when you are running off-road on uneven ground, those muscles need to be able to adjust even faster if you are to avoid exhaustion and possible injury, as your foot lands at a slightly different angle each time.
Is it simply a case of standing on one leg now and again and hoping for an improvement? Well, that will certainly help, but to see and feel real change, adding a progression of one leg work to your training routine will yield better results. The older you get, the harder you need to work to keep your muscles strong and in good shape, and if you are female, the need becomes even greater, so doing one-leg balancing work, alongside other physical preparation work, at least once a week becomes key.
How to stand like a flamingo:
* Work on both legs, but one at a time. If you find balancing harder on one leg, then work on that leg a bit more.
* Start with a simple one leg balance on a flat, smooth surface. With your body upright, arms loosely by your side and your feet flat on the floor (don’t let your toes scrunch up!), raise one knee to hip height and hold.
Tip: actively engage your glutes, as this will help you balance. Your glutes will help keep your knee joint stable and stop your calves, ankles and feet from having to work so hard.
Tip: do this simple balance whenever you have a spare moment, perhaps whilst waiting for the kettle to boil or the photocopier to finish. Your family and colleagues may think you are strange; take no notice - you'll be a better runner for it!
* Progress to standing on a rough surface, eg grass, soil, stones or sand; the uneven ground will start to destabilise your body and so your glutes (and core) will have to work even harder to keep you upright.
Tip: Vary the challenge by balancing both barefoot and with your running shoes on.
* Add some dynamic movement to your balance, to destabilise your body even more. Try writing letters or numbers in the air with your arms/hands, or moving your ‘lifted’ leg forwards, backwards and sideways.
Tip: if you find yourself losing your balance, change legs and start again. Our muscles develop by tearing and repairing, so a little recovery time will do your resting leg good.
Once you’ve mastered your flamingo balance, you’ll be ready to move on to further one-legged challenges, but that’s for another day.
In the meantime, be a great runner - be a flamingo!