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."

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