Or: How To Feel My Body in Space When I Can’t Feel My Body in Space!
Recently, I have been studying proprioception, especially in those who wear a dynamic response brace like my Allard BlueROCKER (which henceforth shall be called Bruce). Bruce is the name of my Ankle-Foot Orthotic that I need to wear on my lower leg so I can walk. This particular brace is made of carbon fiber and kevlar, and it has a dynamic response that “sends a message” up my body to my brain, much like an uninjured body will do. I need to continue to work on my proprioception, especially on the right side where I can’t feel most of my body. But more importantly, I've learned that that every athlete can benefit from proprioception training.
What is Proprioception?
Proprioception is a combination of position, motion, and equilibrium. Good position in proprioception is knowing where you are in space. Have you ever closed your eyes and touched your nose? The reason you’re able to do that is partially position in proprioception. The other reason is motion. Motion refers to knowing where you are going in space. Equilibrium is the final important piece of proprioception. Equilibrium can easily be explained, but a good synopsis is balance! Practicing one's equilibrium is the easiest piece of the puzzle to implement - simply by adding balance exercises into your routine!
Proprioception in Sport
Proprioception plays a key role from both an athlete’s perspective and a coach’s perspective with Rating of Perceived Exertion. Knowing where you are and how you move in space both directly correlate to knowing how much exertion you have used and how much is left.
One area where proprioception is also useful is Ground Reaction Force. Ground Reaction Force, or GRF, is “equal in magnitude and opposite in direction to the force that the body exerts on the supporting surface through the foot.” (source) In other words, it’s the force exerted by the ground on a body in contact with it. With GRF, a person has better push-off and correct landing phase when running, walking, or hiking, and a correct continuous push-pull cycle on the bike. In recent years, some people have concluded that Ground Reaction Force does not have as much to do with proprioception as previously thought. However, imagine the consequence of not being able to sense any GRF at all…
As a coach, trainer, and para-athlete with a paralyzed right side, I have diminished proprioception in that side of my body. When I first became paralyzed on my right side, the consequences of this injury meant I was constantly running into walls, off-balance, and occasionally falling down - all because I couldn’t feel that right side. Whenever these things happened, my husband and I (after we knew I was okay) laughed it off, but I knew that in order to become a serious contender in endurance sports, I needed to PRACTICE. I recruited my husband, Sam, for a basic exercise where he would put my affected arm somewhere in space and I would have to match it with my unaffected arm. Starting at this foundation and slowly incorporating exercises like this into my routine showed me that everyone, especially an endurance athlete, needs to practice balance and proprioceptive exercises.
Exercises for Proprioception
The following are practical exercises focusing on proprioception and balance.
Bosu Ball Lunges - Perform a normal lunge but put the front foot on a Bosu Ball.
Benefits: Balance and equilibrium
Exercise Ball Crunches - Perform basic crunches on exercise ball.
Benefits: Balance and equilibrium
Single Leg Romanian Deadlifts - Standing on one foot, knee straight but not locked, tilt your body forward while the other foot comes off the ground like a teeter-totter. While doing this, keep your shoulders straight and your back neutral.
Benefits: Balance, equilibrium, position, motion
These simple exercises are a great way to not only improve overall strength, but increase proprioception as well. Not only will they increase your balance and equilibrium, but they will help gain knowledge of your place and motion in space. Proprioception may not be a direct discipline in endurance sports, but it’s a discipline of daily living that needs to be practiced, just like running, biking, or swimming.