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Why Runners Are Flocking To The Sport Of Slacklining

It's called slacklining, and involves walking across a tight rope either just above the ground or spanning heights such as across mountains.

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Yoga - Snow Line
Courtesy of Heather Larsen

What started out in the early 1980s as a way for rock climbers to kill some time, slacklining is now a hot sport gaining popularity across the U.S. It is a pretty big thing in states like California, Colorado and Utah, and it’s super hot in Europe. But, it has also steadily gained exposure in major urban areas like Chicago and Boston.

So what is slacklining? It’s a lot like tight rope walking except the line isn’t tight. It’s loose or slack, hence the name. Even better, the rope isn’t a taut cable but a 1” to 2” nylon or polyester webbing. What makes it fun is learning how to balance in order to walk across it. Sound easy? Not so fast. It’s a lot harder than you think. It uses all the tiny muscles, tendons, and ligaments that other sports don’t necessarily work out. That’s why a lot of runners have gotten in to the sport.

Typically, a line is strung between immovable points or anchors—often between two trees in a park. That’s lowlining. Highlining is doing the same thing only between two points extremely high up, like this YouTube video of professional slackliner Faith Dickey in the French Alps. Then, there’s tricklining, yogalining, waterlining and longlining—a million different moves on one strip of fabric.

“Slacklining increases stamina physically and mentally,” said Tim Ross, a retired social worker in California who is on the Board of Directors with Slackline U.S. “Once you get it down, it is the coolest meditation in the world.”

Ross started out in his 40s participating in Ironman triathlons. He was dubious of the running portion. As far as he was concerned, the only reason to run was to get away from the cops, but he realized he actually liked it. When a physical trainer asked him if he’d ever tried slacklining, he gave it a go. Now at 55, he is one of the oldest “slackers,” particularly in highlining. While afraid of heights, he stays focused on exactly what’s in front of him. If his mind wanders, then so does the rest of his body.

Because the sport strengthens areas like knees and ankles, it’s an invaluable activity for building certain muscle areas or even for recovering from an injury. That’s what happened to one marathon runner after ACL surgery, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal. Slacklining was the method used to recuperate from the injury and get back to running as usual.

Chelsey and Jason Magness, adventure racers and partners at YogaSlackers in Oregon, have runners as clientele. “Slacklining is a sport anyone can do. You don’t need to do any super badass poses,” said Chelsey, who has slacklined through her entire pregnancy with twins. “You just have to get past that first hurdle and take the simple cues from your body to get our of your head.”

Courtesy of Heather Larsen

They both teach people how to focus on their breath and let everything go—not unlike going for a run. For Jason though, slacklining came in handy. While he’s a very active athlete, he’s had trouble with an arthritic hip for the past five years. Not wanting a full replacement, which would prohibit him from endurance sports, he opted for hip resurfacing. Within days of surgery he was walking and slacklining and by a month later he was back to running. He credits slacklining with his quick recovery.

Studies show how slacklining can be used effectively as a recovery tool from injury. A 2013 Australian study published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sports showed it to be a productive for the quadriceps. That same year, an Austrian study illustrated the benefits of slacklining for injury prevention and an article published in the International Journal of Athletic Therapy & Training stated that it provides an integrated approach to the improvement of functional capabilities in a safe, efficient, and cost-effective manner.

Heather Larsen, one of the top female slackers in the country and a ProTeam member of Slackline Industries in Colorado, acknowledges that it is a great way to not only recover from an injury but also prevent one in the first place. Early on, Larsen had been a runner. But after a bad car accident, her running days seemed to be over. She needed a good workout, but something with less impact.

“Slacklining is not high intensity,” she explained. “It’s a head-to-toe workout and strengthener. Any time you’re using your core, you’re hitting other body parts.“

Like many slackers, Larsen got introduced to it through rock climbing. It looked super fun, so she decided to try it. She was hooked from the very beginning. While most slackers start small by lowlining, she jumped straight into highlining.

“It takes time to get really good at it,” she said. “In slacklining, you do fail a lot. But, failure is where growth takes place. And, it’s addictive!”

Courtesy of Heather Larsen

Sonya Iverson, a BioTech consultant with her own web design firm in the Seattle area and President of the International Slackline Association, couldn’t agree more. She is just as addicted to the sport as Larsen is. She even started a slackline group in Boston while she was finishing her Ph.D. It now has over 400 members. Iverson warns, however, that in order to walk the line you have to remain calm.

“You have to be relaxed. Limber, but in control,” she said. “Anxiety makes the line shake more.”

Just like Ross, both Iverson and Larsen said that it teaches you to be in the moment. You must be aware of your own balance and concentrate. Letting your mind wander to your grocery list or your impending taxes doesn’t allow for a positive experience.

So where can you find a slackline to jump on? Iverson said most major cities have a group, but you’re best bet is to look for them on Facebook. They’re always open to new people trying it. Or how about an online tutorial? YouTube has a ton. And if you want to set up your own slackline, you can get kits easily on Amazon. But, Iverson suggests Balance Community in Maryland. They don’t just sell the equipment; they’re slackers, too.

“As long as I slackline,” said Iverson, “I just don’t have aches and pains.”