The Art of Falling

When I was a kid, my dad talked to me about how important it was to be able to fall to avoid injuries and taught me some of the basics. That was over fifty years ago.

I have been trail running and mountain biking for a long time. While trail running, I've probably fallen an average of 5 times a year, slipping on ice/snow or tripping on a root/rock. I figure I've fallen at least 200 times in a pair of running shoes.

Here's what I've learned:

Train for your body for falling. Strong hearts and lungs are great for racing, but when you fall you need to have a strong upper body and core to absorb the fall and protect your skeleton. You don't need to be a power lifter. Find a mix of push ups, ab crunches, dumbbell workouts, yoga poses like the plank, exercise balls, kettle bells, and pull ups that strengthens every muscle group from head to toe. Always do some basic exercises where you hold up your entire body weight with your arms at least twice a week. Total body fitness is your best defense.

Learn the art of falling. Sometimes you go down so fast there's no chance to react. Bam, you're down. But usually you have a little time on the way down to help yourself.
  • First, you want to disperse the force of the fall over the length of your body, not just one area, like your elbow, hip, or head. Injuries happen when the force is concentrated in one area. You can help by rolling slightly, like a ball, so the force is dissipated over parts of the legs, arms, and back.
  • Second, collapse into the fall, meaning don't be a stiff plank, but think of yourself more like a coiled spring. All your joints should be slightly bent so each can absorb some of the force. You do not want your arm perfectly straight so the force is transmitted right into your shoulder joint. Instead, bend it slightly so some of the force is absorbed in the hand, the wrist, the forearm, the upper arm, then the shoulder. Steer the hit to your soft spots like your butt (not tailbone) and upper arms, not the hard spots like your head.
  • Third, touch the ground in the shortest distance and time you are able. Watch NFL football receives and running backs - many times you will see them reach towards the ground as they are on the way down after a tackle. If you are on a steep stretch of trail or on snow covered ice where the odds of falling are higher, get your hands low so they can meet the surface as quickly as possible to start the absorption. You want to make the distance of the first part of your body to hit to be as short as possible because the longer the arc, the higher the force. (A couple weeks ago I was with my daughter, coming down the snow-packed Red Mountain trail in Glenwood Springs. Towards the bottom, we met a guy on the way up who asked a question. When I looked to him to answer, I hit a patch of ice and went sideways. I rolled from outside of the knee, to hip, to hand, to elbow, to shoulder. Not bad pain, it works.)
Practice falling every now and then. Pick some deep grass in a park, an exercise mat in your house or gym, or a pile of snow. Fall sideways and forwards a few times to see what it feels like. Become familiar with the sensation and get accustomed to feeling how to dissipate the force of your body. With a little practice, you will do this without thinking.

When my dad was 76 and legally blind (he had some peripheral vision), he decided he wanted to go on a bike ride with me. No one in the family was very enthusiastic about the idea, but I figured he should be able to do it if he wanted to. So he got on my mountain bike and I borrowed my wife's, and, early in the morning when nobody would be out yet, we rode from Copper Mountain down the asphalt bike path to Frisco.

It's a six mile ride on a gradual downhill. I rode alongside him and would advise him when to brake or that we'd be turning slightly to the right or left. Everything went fine until the very end where we came to a fork and another rider came onto the path and swerved slightly into his lane. He braked a little hard, causing the bike to go over. Riding the momentum, he tucked slightly and, with amazing grace, rolled his aging two hundred pound body off the asphalt into the dirt.

The rider and I quickly dismounted to see how he was. His elbow was scraped and he had a small cut on his cheek, but he was grinning ear to ear. "I'm fine," he said, "I know how to fall."

Mops, Vacuum Cleaners and Health

While on my hands and knees scrubbing the kitchen floor in preparation for a visit to our house by four rugrats (my grandchildren), I found myself thinking about people who live in the so-called Blue Zones, such as Okinawa and Costa Rica, where super-longevity is commonplace. One trait they share is they do lots of physical work like tending crops, hauling water, hand-washing clothes, or chopping wood.

In so called-advanced industrial societies, physical work is considered to be beneath us. The smarter and wealthier we are we are inclined to hire someone else to do our labor so we can spend more time our butts in front of a computer at work or in front of a TV at home. However, the epidemic of heart disease and diabetes in the U.S. begs the question if our social ladder is upside down.

Many (especially those who sit in front of computers or jabber on the phone all day) have become wise to the dangers of sedentary life. We invented exercise, as distinguished from labor, as an antidote to the inactivity of white collar jobs. We hit the gym, run 10Ks, pump iron, and all the other stuff you read on blogs and magazines and watch on YouTube or FitnessTV. Exercise is a special activity where you put on special clothes and do special repetitive activities. The focus of those activities are usually the heart, lungs and muscles. Usually we slip in some performance measures demarcated in miles, minutes, pounds, or heart beats.

But, though I'm in pretty good aerobic shape and can do lots of push ups, after several hours of doing housework I felt pleasantly tired and, the next day, even had some muscle soreness here and there. For curiosity, I checked to see how many calories you burn doing work around the house. It's more than you think. For a 150 pound person, you burn 119 calories per half hour vacuuming and 128 calories per half hour scrubbing floors. You might counter, yeah, but you can burn that many calories running one mile. True, but you might spend several hours doing housework and the calories add up. Remember that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend 30 minutes of moderate to intense activity per day to stay healthy, and many household chores qualify.

The take-away lesson of people in the Blue Zones may have to do with something more subtle. Doing chores, you move your body in a variety of directions. You stoop, bend, twist, reach, and lift. You move from one activity to another, sometimes standing, sometimes on your knees. In each of these moves, you are contracting your muscles. Over hours of physical work, you are contracting your muscles many more times than you do in 3 sets of ten reps in a gym.

One of the great miracles of the human body is the lymphatic system. Lymph is a clear fluid that is pumped through your body by gravity and muscle contractions. It delivers nutrients like glucose to all the cells in your body, even ones the heart-powered bloodstream cannot. The lymphatic system also performs critical immune functions to fight off disease. Usually when lymph nodes swell and grow tender as we are fighting an illness is the only time we are aware lymphatic system is even there.
This is one of the secrets of health. You don't need to train like an Olympian (though if you do, more power to you). And it's also why gentle exercises like tai chi, yoga, and walking can keep you healthy. Check out a book by some docs at the Cooper Clinic entitled "Move Yourself." You'll see very small amounts of exercise go a long ways when it comes to wellness.

This TOJ loves the endorphin rush of aerobic exercise, lifting weights, and rigorous calisthenics. It can be fun to push hard and have a measurable goal, like running faster in minutes than my age in years in the Bolder-Boulder. But all these athletic activities depend on being in good health. For that reason, a vacuum cleaner, mop, and snow shovel are as important to a TOJ as good running shoes, dumbbells, and a jock.

Dynamic Stretching: The 95% Solution

This TOJ has a confession to make: I don't do much old-fashioned static stretching, the kind where you assume a fixed pose and hold it for 30 or more seconds, straining, say, to touch your toes. I prefer dynamic stretching for 95% of my warm-up and cool-down because the benefits are proven by good science and it feels more natural.

I learned to not like static stretching when I played high school football and ran track; it was boring and often hurt. I encountered the old ways again when I studied martial arts after college. That was decades ago, and even then I wondered it it really did any good. Since then exercise physiologists have affirmed static stretching is of limited help in preventing injuries, maybe even harmful, and may reduce your athletic performance rather than enhance it.

A couple years ago, Gretchen Reynolds wrote an article about static and dynamic stretching and the scientific evidence for/against both. Check it out because it's a concise overview of the issues and the superior benefits of dynamic stretching. Also included are some good examples of dynamic stretching. The most important take away point is that static stretching is useful only in small doses.

Dynamic stretching is the best warm up. It's very simple: you gently move the joints of your body prior through their range of motion, especially those parts of your body that will be stressed when you start of exercise hard. Prior to running , it might consist of jogging slowly for a couple of minutes, then gradually running a little faster for a couple more minutes. When preparing to lift weights or do calisthenics and jumps, it might consist of rotating the knees for twenty seconds, rotating the hips for twenty seconds, rotating the upper torso right to left for twenty seconds, then windmilling the arms for twenty seconds. This might be followed by a minute of light jumping with feet shoulder width, hands held loose at the side, and the feet barely leaving the ground, or a few squats and forward knee lunges. You want to just start to sweat and slightly elevate your breathing. That's it.

Unless you are a contortionist in the circus, there's no benefit to being super flexible. The right amount of flexibility enables you to generate some power in your running, lifting, x-c skiing, biking, whatever your sport might be. And some flexibility is absolutely necessary if you take a fall on a bike or slip while running on snow. But flexibility is not an end in itself unless you are a yogi. Strength plays an equal role in protecting you.

Flexibility is largely predetermined by genetics and gender. Women are usually more flexible than men. The body stretches less and less as you grow up because of natural bone growth; for example, you won't be able to do the side splits anymore because your mature femurs are more restricted by the fully developed sockets in your hips.

Dynamic stretching of the joints that will be stressed in your particular activity or sport raises your body temperature, allowing collagen in muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints to become more elastic. With the warmer temperatures comes increased blood supply to all these tissues, which in turn aids in producing metabolic energy and helping muscles quickly contract and relax, thereby generating speed and power.

For TOJs, the warm-up becomes even more important because the circulatory system is not as efficient as we age. The discs in your back, joint surfaces, and tendons have a very limited blood supply. These areas are all especially prone to injury. Dynamic stretching, combined with a light aerobic component, gets the juices (like the synovial fluid lubricating your joints) flowing and your body prepared to exert safely.

Static stretching, in particular classic hatha yoga poses, can help after a workout, especially a hard one. The stretches lengthen and relax the muscles, which in turn allows more oxygen rich blood to flood the tissues to remove the lactic acid, promote more rapid healing of damaged tissues (which occurs in all exercise), and reduce post-workout soreness. (Note that my emphasis here is on preventing athletic injuries. Gentle, controlled static stretching, especially as practiced in yoga, induces relaxation, which is effective for stress reduction.)

A favorite hybrid routine that I use as a warm-up which mixes yoga's Salute to the Sun and some everyday calisthenics like push-ups. Going slowly from movement to movement, I never stop, including during the Downward Facing Dog and Cobra poses, which you'll see people on early morning Yoga TV holding for a minute.

Watch how dogs stretch when they rise after sleeping - it's slow, smooth and continuous. Animals mastered dynamic stretching a long time ago.