You’ve probably seen a wobble board—sometimes a curved plank of wood, sometimes a piece of wood with a rocker attached to the bottom—buried in the corner of your gym or at PT offices. It’s not a go-to tool for—well, anyone, really, but a wobble board can actually be a smart way to build foot and core strength, two essential and generally undertrained areas in runners.
A wobble board works by creating an unstable surface to balance on, which helps train the muscular and the neurological systems, explains Denise Smith, a physical therapist and running technique specialist at Smith Physical Therapy and Running Academy in Crystal Lake, IL.
For as much as runners use their legs, they don’t spend a lot of time specifically focusing on their feet. “Whether you run on the road, sidewalk or a trail, your foot has to be strong enough to accommodate to the surface,” says Smith. “A wobble board challenges those small muscles in your feet.” In fact, there are 26 bones, 33 joints, and 100 muscles, tendons, and ligaments in the ankle/foot complex, and you better believe you’re using the majority of those as your foot points and flexes through the gait cycle. “The stronger those muscles are, the longer they can help you run,” she adds.
An unstable surface also calls your core into play. “Your core is the connector between the upper body and lower body and helps transmit energy between the two,” says Smith. Considering running is essentially a series of single-leg jumps, a strong core is crucial for maintaining form and balance so you can run efficiently.
Exercises that challenge your balance also fire up your neuromuscular system, in which your brain fires off electrochemical impulses to your muscles. “The neurological system is one of the first affected as we age—we lose our springiness and ability to move quickly,” says Smith. “This system gives us the ability to react and change directions if needed, so runners need to keep it challenged with agility drills and balance activities that help it learn control and stability.” The more you practice, the more hardwired these instincts will be.
The great thing about the wobble board is you don’t even need to do anything fancy with it. Placing it under the feet or hands can challenge the lower and upper body in ways that will benefit your running, says Smith. “Don’t take for granted the role balance plays in our sport!” she says. But if you’re looking for an added challenge, try these six wobble board exercises.
How to use this list: Each exercise below is demonstrated by Yusuf Jeffers, a certified personal trainer and Asics Runkeeper coach in New York City so you can learn the proper form. Complete the number of reps or amount of time listed for each. Perform the workout 1 to 2 times per week. You will need a wobble board. An exercise mat is optional.
How to do it: Lie faceup with both feet on the wobble board, knees bent, and hands resting at sides. Engage your glutes and core to slowly lift your hips into the air while keeping the wobble board balanced, and then slowly return them to the starting position. Complete 10 to 12 reps. To make it harder, perform the move using one leg at a time.
Why it works: “Bridges are a great way to strengthen the hamstrings, a very important muscle in running,” says Smith. “This muscle is responsible for pulling your foot from the ground to underneath your hip when the trail leg is coming forward.”
How to do it: Place your hands on the edges of the wobble board and come into a high plank position. While keeping the board as level as possible and your core engaged, bend your elbows to lower your chest to the board. Press back up to starting position. Complete 10 to 12 reps. You can also switch your position so that your feet are on the wobble board and hands are on the ground.
Why it works: “Runners often forget to strengthen their upper body, especially their shoulders,” says Smith. “The shoulders help counteract the weight of the lower body when running, which helps you run more efficiently versus letting the legs do all of the work.”
Pull to Running Pose
How to do it: Stand with right foot on the wobble board and left foot on the ground. Lean forward slightly and quickly pull left knee up to hip height as you pump your arms like you do when running. Hold for one breath and try to balance on the board. Return to the starting position and repeat. Do 10 to 12 reps on each leg. To make it harder (and target your hamstring), add an ankle weight.
Why it works: “Learning how to quickly pull your recovery or trail foot from the ground to underneath your hip will help with speed and improving your cadence,” says Smith. “This leads to less ground contact time and faster turnover, both of which are important in preventing injuries.”
Single-Leg Deadlift to the Running Pose
How to do it: Stand on right leg on the wobble board in the running pose outlined above. From there, slowly hinge at the hips, reaching left fingers to right toes while the left leg kicks back. As you return to the starting position, quickly pull the left knee up and in while snapping your right arm forward and left arm back as if you’re running. Complete 10 to 12 reps on each leg.
Why it works: “Deadlifts are a great way to work on hamstring strength and balance,” says Smith. “By combining a single-leg deadlift with the wobble board, you focus on single-leg control first while lowering the chest and then by bringing the knee up to hip height.”
How to do it: Stand with both feet on the balance board. With core engaged, send hips back to lower into a squat, then drive through the heels to return to start. Start by holding onto a stable surface and as your control increases, you can remove the need for support and lift your arms straight out for counter-balance.
Why it works: “Squats are important to runners as a core exercise as well as a quad strengthener,” says Smith. “The more the quad can support your landing, the less stress will be placed on your joints. Adding the wobble board increases the challenge to this exercise and helps improve foot and ankle strength.”
How to do it: Grab hold of the edges of the wobble board with both hands. Come into a high plank position with shoulders over wrists and core engaged so your body forms one long line. Make sure your back stays level (don’t let your hips sink!) and keep your abdominal muscles drawn up and in. Try to keep the board as level as possible. Hold for 30 to 45 seconds. You can also switch and put your feet on the wobble board and your hands on the ground.
Why it works: “Planks target stability for the entire body and help connect the sense of control between the upper body and lower body,” says Smith.