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Mental Mastery with Mark Allen Week 6: Finding Balance for a More Powerful Run

If you're neglecting the proprioception part of the running equation, you're missing out on free speed. Six-time Ironman World Champion Mark Allen shares drills to recruit the physical and mental muscles for better balance and a more powerful stride.

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In week six of our nine-week series designed to help you gain mental mastery of your triathlon performance, we’re going to talk about balance. Not training-life-work balance (though that is also important!) but physical balance. If you’re neglecting the proprioception part of the running equation, you’re missing out on free speed. If your balance is not spot-on, you won’t be able to utilize the full strength you have as a runner.

Runners who have the lowest ground contact time run faster than those whose feet spend a lot of time on the ground. And a big part of reducing your ground contact time is finding balance in the three parts of a stride: First, when your feet come in contact with the ground; then when your knee bends and the leg loads, and finally the push off. When you have balance, you eliminate wobble, and all three parts of your stride are faster and more efficient, as more force gets generated to propel you forward.

Balance was a big part of my success as a runner, and I continue to work on balance even today. I’ll do the balance drills below daily for a week, then shift to every other day for a week, then twice a week for a week and then stop for a few weeks. It’s like any kind of fitness. As you gain proficiency, there is less time needed doing it to maintain the positive effects.

But the real key to better balance as a runner is not what you’re doing with your feet or legs. It’s what you’re doing with your mind. Practicing your mental focus alongside the workout below will help you to dial in the little things that help you become a better, faster, stronger runner.

Remember the three pillars of Mental Mastery:

  1. Body Awareness – Tuning into how you are moving.
  2. Internal Dialogue – Being aware of what you are telling yourself.
  3. Mental Race Prep – Connecting your immediate effort to the outcome you want.

The run workout below is designed to help you develop those skills.

Mark Allen leading Greg Welch early in the marathon.
Mark Allen leading Greg Welch early in the marathon at Ironman Hawaii 1992. (Photo: Lois Schwartz)

Week 6: Key Strength Run Workout and Mental Mastery Drills

Part 1: One-leg balance drills

This drill should be done with your shoes and socks off. It has three standing positions that simulate the three components of your footstrike as you run: contact with the ground, the load phase and push off. They key feature of these three drills is that they will be practiced with your eyes closed. This takes away one of the three things that enable you to balance: your eyes, your inner ear and your feet. Without the eyes, the other two components are called upon, particularly the feet, which will be engaging very small muscles needed for balance.

Part 1: Contact with ground
Stand on one leg, with arms relaxed at your sides. The standing leg should basically be straight (you may choose whether or not you wish to lock your knee). Take a moment to find your balance. Now, close your eyes and maintain your balance. Hold for 20-30 seconds, then switch legs and repeat on the other side. Do 3 sets on each leg alternating legs. This is activating your ability to find the balance point when your feet come in contact with the ground when running.

Part 2: Load
Stand on one leg and bend your knee slightly so that your upper body lowers just a couple of inches. Keep arms relaxed at your sides and find your balance. Now, as with the previous drill, close your eyes. Hold for 20-30 seconds, then switch legs and repeat on the other side. Do 3 sets on each leg alternating legs. This is activating your ability to find the balance point when you are at peak load, just before you start to push off in your running stride.

Part 3: Push off
Stand on one leg with the knee bent as in the previous exercise. Find your balance, then close your eyes. Now, push up so that your leg ends up straight. Try to find your balance at the top of the push with your leg straight. Hold for just a couple of seconds, or until you find your balance. Repeat this move 10 times on one side, then switch to the other side. Do 3 sets of this move on each side. This final part of the drill works your ability to push off the ground in your running stride with full force without any wobble. As with the other two parts, keep your arms relaxed at your side as best as you can.

As you progress through these three drills, you will likely feel the muscles of the feet and ankle working to manage good balance. That is what you are after! If you find your arms coming way out to help balance, try relaxing them back down to hanging loosely at your side. Over time you will notice that you hit what I call the “zero balance” point, where your body is in full alignment quickly and very little effort is put into trying to find and maintain your balance.

Mental Mastery Focus Cues:

The pillar that you will be engaging during all three parts of this drill is Body Awareness. This will come naturally, simply because it requires a deep focus on what is going on with your body to find your balance.

In the first set of each part, become aware of how your feet and ankles can be worked to get your balance. In the second set of each part, pull your awareness upward and become aware of how your glutes and hips can help with balancing also. In the third set of each part, go even higher and become aware of how relaxing your upper body and letting your arms hang loose at your sides affects your balance and enhances it. The combination of the physical drill, along with the enhanced awareness of how your feet, core and upper body all work to maintain a balanced alignment, will improve your ability to get on and off your feet while running.

Part 2: Step-Ups

This workout is a classic strength move with a twist. It’s a step-up, which is a squat followed by a step up onto a box, one leg at a time, with an exaggerated run stride look. Just like the one-leg drill, this should be performed barefoot Here’s how:

  • Find a box or stair that is no higher than your shin – you should be able to place a foot on it and not have your quad be elevated beyond a horizontal plane. If your knee is higher than horizontal with your hips, the box is too high.
  • Squat, then step up onto the box with one leg, making your weight-bearing leg come up to straight. Swing your other leg up and through, bringing that knee up to about horizontal to the ground or slightly higher.
  • At the peak elevation of the swinging leg, have a split-second pause that is a check on your balance. (Remember your one-leg drill!) Make sure the glute on the weight-bearing side is tight and that you are not wobbling at the very top of the step-up.
  • Come back down to the ground, then repeat with the opposite leg. Do 2 sets of 15 reps on each side alternating legs with a minute rest between sets. In the second set, start out using the opposite leg you started the step up with in the first set.
  • For an added challenge, add weights in your hands or a bar across your shoulders.

Doing step-ups, as opposed to just doing a classic squat, engages balance along with the strength, which will in turn increase your power as a runner. You might know someone who can squat huge amounts of weight, but they’ll struggle with step-ups because they lose their balance with a very light weight. The difference in those two moves shows wasted strength. Your functional strength is only what you can push up on one leg in this step-up move, not what you can push in a squat position with both feet providing a super stable platform from which to push up.

Mental Mastery Focus Cues:

First Set:

The focus will be using the Mental Mastery pillar of Race Prep. Racing requires drawing up energy that you normally don’t use in training. It is your “go beyond” energy that elevates your performance way beyond what you could ever do in training. One way to practice accessing this “go beyond” energy is to do an explosive move that challenges your muscles in training. If you choose a weight that challenges you a bit, a step-up is a perfect exercise to practice drawing from this energy.

When you do the step-up, make it an explosive move. Push up with force. Drive the swinging leg up with speed and force. Keep the whole movement controlled, but make it fast and powerful as you step up. This requires your Race Prep “go beyond” energy. You will feel it when you do it! When you do, notice your sense of power about your physical ability. You will be living the experience of having physical power.

Second Set:

Now the focus turns to Internal Dialogue. In the second set, you will likely find that because your muscles were activated during the first set, the explosive move feels easier  than in the first set. This has the natural effect of quieting your Internal Dialogue, dialing down the intensity of how you are having to focus. If the perceived effort of something is reduced, so too will the amount of focus required. “Focus” and “conversation” or “thought” are all forms of Internal Dialogue.

In this second set, there should naturally be less dialogue, because the lift should feel slightly easier. If it is not feeling easier and you are struggling mentally to get through the set, take an extra breath at the bottom of each lift, when both feet come back to the ground. Inhale and exhale with a bit of force, just like the move itself is being done. On the completion of the exhale, before you inhale again, pause for just a moment. In that moment of pause, feel complete silence inside. Now your Internal Dialogue is in the right place. Doing a breath reset is a powerful skill that will enable you to reset your dialogue anytime you need it, whether it’s in a workout or a race. You will experience how to bring yourself back to a mental mastery state where you are calm and fully engaged in “stepping up” to the task at hand.

More Mental Mastery Workouts from Mark Allen

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