AW promotion: Peta Bee talks to masters athletes about how Manchester Metropolitan University research has helped change their training habits

Balance – and the importance of training to improve it – has never been better understood by scientists. In AW magazine, we have reported on the groundbreaking research being conducted by exercise scientists at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) where Jamie McPhee, professor of musculoskeletal physiology, and his team, have been carrying out studies funded by the European Union and the UK Medical Research Council (MRC) and involving members of the British Masters Athletics Federation.

Their findings have shown that while young adults – even those who are not very athletic – can easily stand on one leg, eyes closed, for 30 seconds, age diminishes this ability. By the time the average person is 70 years old they manage only four to five seconds doing the same test.

In the trials, even super-fit masters athletes fared no better than the average couch potato. McPhee reported that, among well-trained masters athletes, those in their 70s could hold the position only for around seven seconds – no better than the average for a sedentary person.

We now know our balance deteriorates as we age and that, unless we do something about it, it is a slippery slope that can result in a dramatic downturn in performances. But what can be learned from such studies and how do we apply them to our own training?

Here we ask six AW readers how the scientific findings have influenced their own conditioning work.

Pamela Woodcock, Morpeth Harriers, F65

Although I was aware of the importance of balance, I hadn’t fully realised the impact of lack of balance on performance so I’ve made several changes to my training since reading about the research. I’ve started doing Pilates two or sometimes three times a week and I also incorporate balance exercises into my day. When brushing my teeth I now stand on one leg – I’ve found it helps to focus on a fixed point to keep my balance – if I’m standing in a queue I lift one foot slightly off the floor. If someone’s watching, they usually just smile and seem a bit bemused.

Tony Bowman, Leeds City AC, M80

I was already aware of the importance of balance, especially for my event, the hurdles (pictured, top), and because it is important in my other sport, tennis. However, since reading the article I now include one-foot, eyes-closed, balancing twice a week in my training. I intend continuing with this as I get older.

Penny Forse, Stubbington Green, F70

I didn’t realise the effect that a lack of balance can have on your on performance. Having tripped when running off road on several occasions over the last few years, I thought it was purely that I didn’t “pick my feet up” as much as I had done in my younger years. My balance is much worse standing on my left foot, following several twisted ankles over the years. I would religiously do the rehab exercises but would not continue once I could run well again – hence my poor proprioception. Balance on either foot is bad, but seems much better later in the day than first thing in the morning. Before reading about the MMU research I was doing balance exercises in Pilates just once a week, but I have increased that and am now also doing them at home. It’s something I plan to continue as part of my routine, particularly now I know balance can be improved, even at a 70.

Chris Mason, South Derbyshire, M65

I had a spell where I was regularly falling over during running so tried to minimise causes. As a result I became aware of the importance of balance during injury rehab and also because I have a family member who is a physio. These days I incorporate a balance element into my daily routine and run warm-up. I’m also a coach and, where practical, introduce an element of balance to my sessions for others. Improving my balance, flexibility and training and race volume is something I’m always adjusting to stay fit. The plan is to incorporate balance into my daily routine as I do flexibility and during my one strength and gym session a week.

Ian Ratcliffe, Macclesfield Harriers and Northern Masters AC, M55

I was aware of the importance of balance training, but not of the effect that the deterioration of balance can have on performance. For quite a while I had been incorporating balance exercises in my training – usually balancing on each leg daily with my eyes wide open, three times on each leg in a sprint pose to help with flexibility. Since reading about the MMU findings, I am now also doing the same with my eyes closed and I’ve added a second exercise – standing on one leg with eyes closed and ‘drawing a star’ with the other foot. This one is much more difficult – in fact I’ve been very surprised at the impact of closing my eyes when trying to balance.

Brenda Robinson, Rochdale Harriers, F75

I‘ve long suspected I was unbalanced in daily activities and needed to do something about it. I found it hard sometimes to run in a straight line but since starting to concentrate on balance training I have found ordinary daily tasks better and feel my running is improving. Now I am doing two Pilates classes per week and trying to practice balancing daily by standing on one leg. Some days I am reasonable but other days completely rubbish and can hardly do a few seconds. However, it is all paying off. I ran the last leg of a 4 x 2 mile relay recently and was nearly three minutes faster than in the event last year.

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