Written By Barefoot Dawsy
As a runner, it can be very easy to fall into the trap of ONLY running, which is one of the leading candidates for overuse injuries. A great way to avoid this is to add some cross-training activities into your routine, to mix things up a bit and strengthen muscles, tendons and joints, that otherwise may not see much work.
In my experience, the best type of cross-training is one that you enjoy, so it’s important to try new things to see what else you might like.
Recently, my own cross-training experimentation has led me to Slacklining. Slacklining looks a lot like tightrope walking, with a few noticeable differences. It consists of a nylon rope strung between 2 anchors, such as trees or boulders. Unlike a tightrope, which is taught and rigid, the elasticity of the nylon allows the rope to bend and flex, making it a real challenge to balance on.
I haven’t done much slacklining, but I was recently lucky enough to have the opportunity to join Phil Piper from Slackline Australia for a day of slacklining. Phil was a huge help, and took us through the basics of what gear to use, how to set it up, and ultimately how to get up and start balancing on the slacklines.
At its most basic, a slackline is essentially just a rope that’s tied between a couple points, but in practice, there is some essential gear that makes the experience safer and more enjoyable.
No surprise here. The first thing you will need is the rope itself. As slacklining has grown in popularity, so have the number of styles, widths and brands available. We used 50mm and 35mm Elephant brand slacklines. These are the 2 most common widths, but lines are available in a variety of sizes. For barefoot slacklining, the 50mm was a lot more comfortable and slightly easier to use.
With regards to length, how much you will need is entirely dependent on how far you’re willing to take it. To start out a 10m line should be more than adequate. Slacklines can last for years though, so future-proofing by buying a longer slackline is not such a bad idea.
The Ratchet is the scary-looking metal bit that’s used to tighten the slackline up. It’s actually a fairly simple machine. All you need to do is thread an end of the slackline into it, and crank it until you’ve reached the desired tension.
When choosing a ratchet, the main consideration for the beginner is size and weight. If you’re planning to just throw your gear in the car to bring it to the local park, then a heavier, larger ratchet is not an issue. If however, you want to carry it in a backpack, a smaller ratchet could be the better choice.
Most slackline kits will include some form of metal loop that makes it easier to attach the line to the tree opposite the ratchet end. This can be a locking carabiner or a shackle. The main thing here is to find one that it large enough to accommodate the width or the line so that it doesn’t get twisted or squished when tension is applied. Generally, the included parts in any decent kit will be sufficient.
- Tree Gear
Since a lot of slacklining tends to be done between two trees, it’s important to pick up something to protect both your line from the tree and the tree from your line. Enter Tree Gear. It comes in a variety of materials but it’s essentially a mat that sits between the rope and the tree to stop them from rubbing on each other. An optional extra, but well worth the small investment as it can dramatically increase the life of your line, and is more environmentally friendly.
I honestly think that if you’re at all interested in getting started with slacklining, that you should take an hour or 2 course at a minimum. This will help ensure that you know how to correctly position and care for your gear, and will get you up on the line quickly and safely.
That being said, there are a few things that you can expect to learn on your first outing.
Before you even think about stepping up onto the slackline, there are a few things that need to be done.
First, you will need to find a suitable location, which should be flat, ideally with a soft area below the line. This is ideally grass or sand, or even mats if you’re that way inclined.
Make sure that you don’t set the line up across a walkway or high traffic area, and be mindful of any low branches, etc that might get in the way when you’re standing on the line.
Once you’re all set up, take some time to warm up with some dynamic stretching, or a bit of yoga. Being nice and limber will help you stay balanced and reduce the chance of injuries.
- Assisted Balancing
When you first get up on a slackline, you’re going to be surprised at how tricky it really is. When you see the videos or watch the pros, it looks simple, but in reality it will be mere seconds before your legs are shaking and the ground is rushing up to meet you.
For this reason, it’s a good idea to start with a buddy. Get them to help you on to the line, and use them as support as you get the feel for standing up on the slackline.
Don’t worry about walking just yet, just try small things like standing without support, or crouching down.
- Assisted Walking
Once you get a feel for the slackline, you can try a little bit of walking. Get up on the line, and with your friend walking next to you (on the ground), slowly place one foot in front of the other. Keep your hand on your friend’s shoulder for balance.
Focus on a point in front of you to keep your head up. Try not to look at your feet. Slowly ease your foot along the line and gently transfer your weight onto your lead foot.
Try going forward and backwards, and gradually try removing your hand from your buddy’s shoulder. This is great practice, so do it as much as you can until you start to get a bit more comfortable.
- Unassisted Balancing
When you’re ready, you can try doing some unassisted work on the slackline. Try sitting on the rope and balancing with your feet off the ground. Shift your weight around and see how this affects your balance. Try spinning around to face the other way. Again, just take the time to get familiar with the feeling of the line.
You may find that it’s easier to start out near the ends of the rope as they will be more stable.
Eventually, you’ll feel confident enough to stand up on the line by yourself. Try stepping up, then back down a few times. Don’t try to do too much too quickly. It’s going to take you a while to get used to doing it on your own so don’t get discouraged. Take your time, keep practicing, and you’ll get there.
- Unassisted Walking
Eventually, you’ll be ready to try walking on your own. Start with a step forward, then a step back. Take your time, remember to breathe, and make your way slowly along the line. Most people won’t get to this point until they’ve a had a good few sessions on the slackline. If you can’t do it on your first go, don’t worry, just go back a step, keep practicing, and you’ll get there eventually.
If you decide that you like it, and persevere, there is some pretty cool stuff you can do on a slackline. It may take a number of years to get to this point, but have a look at some of the videos below and tell me it’s not worth it!
Slacklining is a great way to improve your balance, core and foot strength. It’s also a lot of fun to do. If you’re interested in getting started, then I strongly recommend getting some professional guidance. There are a lot of great companies out there, and short, afternoon courses are pretty easy to find, and relatively inexpensive.
If you’re in Australia and are interested in purchasing some gear, exclusive to Beginning Barefoot readers, you can get 5% off any order for slacklining gear from Slackline Australia, just use the code ‘barefoot‘ when you make your purchase!
Beginning Barefoot would like to thank Phil and Logan from Slackline Australia for taking us out and showing us the ropes (literally!) Also, a big thanks to Sam Dunworth for taking all of the pictures in this article!