Get on the Ball!
Despite the paucity of strong scientific evidence supporting the notion that cross-training improves running performance and/or decreases the odds of incurring a running injury, many runners persist in engaging in various forms of alternative exercise.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; as noted in an earlier installment (Article #61),there can be some benefit by virtue of the fact that cross-training often forces a reduction in weekly running mileage, which has been associated with a reduced incidence of running injuries. Alternative exercise routines may also be beneficial from a mental-health standpoint, in terms of reducing boredom and staleness.
The question facing most runners when trying to choose a cross-training routine is … which one? Weight training? Biking? Swimming? Elliptical trainers or stair steppers? Yoga? Pilates? All of these and more have their benefits and none have any true negative aspects in terms of being risky or dangerous. Most, however, have some cost associated with them that may make some think twice about investing in the necessary equipment or gym membership.
There is another option that I believe is, dollar-for-dollar, the single best piece of exercise equipment available.
The gym ball – aka, Swissball, stability ball, balance ball, fitness ball, physioball, etc.- is an incredibly low cost ($10-20), low maintenance, portable, user-friendly choice that offers an amazingly wide range of exercises and routines for just about anyone. While it may appear to be simple and too-easy to use for a”real” workout, it is almost limitless in the degree of difficulty one can encounter when used properly. (If you’re not sure you know what I’m referring to, Google “gym ball” and you’ll find plenty of pictures of them.)
Gym balls can help increase upper and lower extremity strength and endurance, but are probably most valuable in helping to improve balance, core strength, and spinal stability. The inherent instability of the ball forces the body to recruit and engage numerous muscle groups at the same time, improving functional balance.
These balls come in a variety of sizes, so everyone should be able to find one that fits appropriately, and fit is important. They are generally very durable as well and should last along time,unless you have a hungry Doberman.
As with any other form of exercise, it’s a good idea to start out conservatively and see what you can do comfortably. If you’re not sure how to progress to exercises that will offer enough challenge, a physical therapist can design a safe, progressive program to suit your needs.
Gym balls are not a substitute for specific activities, such as biking or swimming if improving in those areas is your goal, but offer a very economical way to provide a good overall workout in the comfort of your own home. If, after using one for a while, you decide it’s not for you, you’ve only lost a few dollars, as opposed to, say, hundreds for a stationary bike or stair stepper that becomes a clothes hangar.