Alexandra Raisman of the U.S. competing on the balance beam in the gymnastic women's team final at the London Olympic Games. Photo: Jamie Squire, Getty Images


The balance beam is one of women’s gymnastics toughest and most difficult events. There is almost zero margin for error. As we have seen in the London Olympics, even the most talented gymnasts often slip, stumble, or fall off the narrow wooden beam.  But the balance beam is more than just about maintaining one’s balance during gravity-defying acrobatic moves. It also involves what is known as proprioception, or what is often called our sixth sense, and is generally defined as the body’s innate ability to orient itself in space or through movement. Proprioception comes from the Latin word proprius, meaning “one’s own” and perception.

Proprioception is what barefoot runners describe as the relationship between the body and ground, and with thick-soled, oversupported running shoes, the body’s entire nervous system can’t function optimally. There’s an artificial barrier and proprioception becomes dulled. Minimalist shoes lessen this barrier. Barefoot purists, however, claim that one must be completely unshod for total proprioception.

According to the VivoBarefoot ebook written by running coach Lee Saxby, “About 70% of that {proprioception} feedback comes via pressure receptors, mostly located in the feet. The human foot needs protection, but thick, shock-absorbing soles greatly reduce sensory feedback and therefore limit the quality of movement.”

“Many types of ill-fitting running shoes, and those that are over-supported, too much cushioning, and rigid tread and heel, can put stress on the foot’s delicate structures, including muscles, bones, ligaments, joints, and even the skin,” says Dr. Phil Maffetone.  “In addition, shoes that produce a noticeable height difference between the heel and front of the foot can be an unnatural stressor, especially on the knees. So don’t be seduced by the shock-absorbing material of the shoe’s sole. The thicker the tread, the harder it is for the brain and foot to properly communicate with the body. In other words, the soles of the feet can’t stay in contact with the ground. You want that earth-to-foot rapport. While an over-developed shoe bottom might be protecting your foot from rocks and tree roots if you are running on a trail, there’s still a lack of foot-sense, which, in turn, restricts  proprioception. This can throw off a stride and cause further biomechanical stress, because the brain is also less aware of where the foot is landing—and how to make minute adjustments.”

Proprioception is different than balance which derives from the fluids in the inner ear. Without proprioception, you would be unable to multitask, such as drinking a cup of coffee while reading this short article, or running without looking where your feet land each and every time.

So perhaps the balance beam is improperly named! To be more precise, it should be renamed the “proprioception and balance beam.” One could imagine what a tongue-twisting nightmare that would have been for NBC’s gymnastic analysts who already had to master hard-to-pronounce Russian names. — Bill Katovsky