Thursday, March 24, 2011

Why You Should Stand On Shaky Ground (and Walk On It and Run On It)

What do you think of when you hear that someone is "level-headed", or they're "on the level", or they're doing their "level best"? If you're like most of us, these words probably bring the most positive attributes to mind.

But on the other hand, what if they're "a bit uneven", or even "unbalanced", "unstable", their opinions are "slanted", or they present a "lopsided" argument? Not so good, is it?

Clearly, we like the concept of flat, stable, even, and easy in our culture. It should be no surprise that when it comes to running and walking, we do the same, preferring to stick to sidewalks and nicely tended bike paths or walkways. Much of this is based on convenience. Thankfully, we no longer need to slog through the mud when running errands downtown, and the rubber galoshes that were once commonly needed to cover a nice pair of shoes have largely been relegated to the gardening shed.

But all this cleanliness and convenience comes at a price: the strength and stability of the supporting muscles in our feet, ankles, legs, hips, core, and spine. It takes far fewer muscles to stride along on a flat and level surface than to keep an entire body upright and stable on shaky ground. So as often as I can, I like to run, walk, or hike on uneven surfaces and trails.

On Tuesdays, when my daughter is in a horseback riding class, I like to take our dogs on a long walk through the back pastures. The ground is lopsided, lumpy, filled with grassy tussocks, and slanted and sloped in all kinds of directions. I started to notice that after walks there, I could definitely feel that my muscles were getting a way better workout than on a normal walk. At times, I practically feel like I'm marching, I have to pick my feet up so high above the tall grass.

Some areas are wooded, with only deer trails where I have to duck under various branches and vines, jump over downed branches and logs, and squeeze my way past brambles. All that bending, twisting, jumping, and scraping are excellent for your body's natural stability muscles in the core. Is it a P-90x Ab Blaster video? No, of course not. But it's a real, natural workout for your entire body in the ways that it's meant to be moving.

At times, I even have to jump across small streams, or leap from grassy lump to grassy lump across marshy ground. There's nothing like a running or standing long jump to get all of your muscles small and large firing. And there's nothing like missing your mark to get your shoes soaking wet!

Later in the week, I'll include a couple of rocky, rooty trail runs in my Vibram toe shoes to round out my stability-building routine. I've found that it makes a big difference in how stable my body is on a daily basis. Not too long ago, I slipped going down our stairs carrying a full laundry basket. Not only was I able to keep my entire body upright (using those core muscles), I didn't even have to put a hand down to stabilize myself, and I didn't turn any ankles. Our bodies are meant to be this strong and secure, all it takes is a little shaky ground to keep them that way.

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