feeling wobbly? Hold the line

I’m seeing more and more instructors working an urbanline – a version of slacklining – in the park these days. Tied between trees they’ve got their clients bouncing and using the lines for resistance work, and it sent me researching this fascinating sport, where people go into meditative state, while strengthening their core, legs and mental health all while balancing on a thin strap.

Once seen purely as the domain of rock climbers (they first invented the sport in California in the late 1970’s), slacklining is now used by everyone from beginners starting on low-strung lines in parks (where it’s known as urban-lining), to the likes of Giovanna Petrucci, the Brazilian athlete and champion slackliner from Rio de Janeiro, and Nathan Paulin, who set a record for walking the longest slackline ever (over 1km).

This relatively new sport is performed on a thin strap of nylon or polyester, with a width of five centimetres, suspended under tension between two trees or poles, above the ground. The voltage on the slackline with the ratchet is strong enough to support the weight of the slackliner, like having a thin trampoline with a width of only a few centimetres. In urbanlining, practiced in parks and city streets, instructors usually use wide 2″ webbing lines and the most popular way to use it is time lining – to stay on the line for as long as possible before falling off. This takes tremendous concentration and focus of will, and is a great endurance training for postural muscles.

Champion slack liners push themselves airborne to perform jumps and somersaults, and there’s a whole load of ways that slacklining or urbanlining at beginner level with a trainer can help improve your health, from working different muscles to strengthening your mental agility.

Here’s 8 reasons to try it:

1. It improves your balance

Slacklining and urbanlining are all about balancing on a wobbly line, whether that line is suspended a few metres or a few thousand metres in the air. Balance and stability are integral to many adventure sports, including trail running, skiing, stand-up paddle boarding and climbing. It requires good sensory awareness, particularly crucial in climbing where you need to balance on the rock face and know where to position your body.

2. It strengthens your core

So it’s a great change for anyone who hates sit-ups but wants to improve their core strength. All that balancing means you need to use your core muscles while on the line – you use core muscles to hold your centre of balance and use your arms to balance. The stronger you become in your core, the less you need to do with your arms. Beginners are most likely to feel the burn: if you urban line with an instructor, for the first six weeks, you’re most likely to test your core strength. But after that, your body usually adapts and you’re less likely to feel it in your abs.

3. It’s meditative

Walking on a slackline is sometimes described as moving meditation, where you enter a ‘flow state’ and have to keep your mind clear and focused enough to make it from one end of the line to the other. This is particularly true for longlining and highlining, the sport’s super-high, most intense version. When you start slacklining, your mind is really busy thinking about how to keep your balance and it’s really hard to clear your mind.

You have to focus on your breathing, to reel in your chatty mind. That’s how you achieve meditation on a thin piece of material and, ultimately, get better at slacklining.

4. It can help prevent back pain

Your back muscles will also get strengthened in the early stages of your slacklining career – which can help reduce the chance of getting back ache.
Your quadratus lumborum (QL) muscle is a common cause of back pain, and working it on the slackline helps stabilise your hips and spine. Your erector spinae muscles in the base of your back also get fired up, while using your glutes holds your hips steady, improving your posture and reducing the chances of an achy back.

Research shows slacklining has a positive effect on posture.

Otto Von Arx, a consultant orthopaedic spinal surgeon at Circle Bath Hospital in the UK, says: “Any multifaceted approach to core stability, for example slacklining, has the potential of improving back pain.”

5. It works those legs

Pressing the line down using your legs will mean the slackline feels steadier and will help you keep your balance. It also means your leg muscles will get a good workout, particularly if you’re starting out in the sport and your body takes a while to adjust to it. You’re also constantly bending and flexing your knee as you move along the line.

Imagine holding a lunge or squat position for minutes on end and you’re nearly there.

6. It can help prevent injury

Slacklining may also help prevent injuries, including some common leg injuries. Research shows that slacklining improves knee joint stability, which has an injury preventative effect. Studies using traditional balance training have indicated that stability exercises could prevent some lower-leg injuries like knee injuries and ankle sprains.

8. It’s portable and versatile

One of the best things about slacklines is that they are portable – you just need webbing (the line) and ratchets to secure the line to a tree and get the right tension. The ability to carry around your gym in your backpack means you’re much more likely to use it.