Saturday, October 4, 2014

Taekwondo seniors and balance training

For most of our lives we take the great gift of balance for granted.  We learn to walk, run, jump, ride bikes, climb rocks, and successfully complete the millions of other activities that engage the body's ability to keep us steady and upright.  Of course, when we were younger and just beginning to learn Taekwondo, we continually had our balancing ability challenged in the dojang.  The master instructor expected us to spend quite a lot of time balancing on one foot, generally for kicking but also for blocking and striking. 
     I remember one of my first instructors telling the class that "a martial arts student should have better balance on one foot than everyone else has on two."  For the record, I thought that his claim was a bit overstated.  But I certainly agree that martial artists should be extremely competent at balancing on one foot.
   Ah, but then along comes age, and this balance thing can get a little tricky.  Our ability to balance tends to degrade as we grow older, even if we're still training seriously.  For many seniors, a decline in the ability to balance is often related to diminished leg strength.  But for those of us who still train and compete the problem can be more complicated and related to health issues or inner-ear changes.  Your overall level of fitness may be wonderful, and yet you may find yourself struggling with balance for the first time in your life.
   Yes, I'm in the same boat.  I'm 68 and a frequent competitor.  But my ability to balance on one foot is not quite what it was 40 years ago.  So I have a choice: live with it or do my best to overcome the natural decline.  My choice, of course, is to do whatever I can to maintain my ability to balance under sometimes extreme conditions and body positions.  If that's your choice as well, then here are a few tips on how to work on balance as part of your regular training.  I'm not a physician or physical therapist, so I can't comment on your particular balance issues.  But I can tell you what works for me.
     Working on leg strength.  It's such a simple word: leg.  But there are countless moving parts that need attention if you're having balance issues.  Your quadriceps and hamstring muscles need to be strong, of course, and you can work on them in a variety of ways: knee bends, wall-sitting, and long-count Taekwondo stances are among the more obvious methods.  Working on the thigh muscles isn't enough, though.  The muscles that comprise your ankle are critical, especially if you're holding a one-legged stance for any length of time.  You need to strengthen all the muscles from the calf on down, especially those alongside the Achilles tendon.  One technique that I find helpful is to raise yourself up on the toes of both feet . . . and then lower yourself with just one foot.  When you do this, you're executing what is known as an "eccentric contraction" -- meaning the muscle is getting longer as you lower your heel to the floor.  
     Adjusting floor surfaces.  Standing on one foot is easier on a hard surface -- a wooden or tile floor, let's say -- than on a soft surface.  So make sure when you practice balancing on one foot you don't just take the easy route.  In fact, begin on the softer surface -- a thick carpet, for instance.  Plant one foot; raise the opposite foot to the knee of the balancing leg; and hold the position for 10 seconds or so.  Then switch.  The soft surface is unstable, naturally, so you continually need to adjust your foot and ankle in order to maintain your balance.  Once you can hold your balance on a carpet, consider buying a couple of foam pads that are made just for this purpose.  You can buy the pads in varying degrees of softness.  The firmer the pad, the easier it is to balance; the softer the surface, the more difficult it is to balance.  After you've done your balance exercises on a soft surface, move to the hard surface.  You should feel much more stable and in control.
     Closing your eyes.  If you've ever had a really thorough physical exam, you probably had a doctor ask you to close your eyes and hold both arms out in front of you.  Even on two feet you can have a problem maintaining your balance.  So try this.  Stand near a solid support that you can easily reach out and hold.  [Make sure there are no surrounding objects that could injure you if you fall.]  Without holding the support, balance on one leg with your eyes closed.   If you feel as though you're about to lose control, grab the support.  Try again.  Switch legs.  Yes, this is an exceedingly difficult exercise.  But if you do it safely, it can really help you balance better when your eyes are open.
     Training every day.  Some exercises aren't meant to be done every day.  Weight training, for instance, requires rest.  But working on balance is something you can and must work on every day if you're attempting to overcome an age-related decline.  If for any reason you suspect that your balance issues are excessive or have come on too suddenly, see your doctor to make sure that the problem isn't something that requires medical attention
     If you're serious about Taekwondo, consider yourself a work in progress.  You never learn everything, and you never stop needing to train your mind and body.  Working on balance is one highly effective way to improve your confidence and performance.