Monday, February 13, 2012

To Fall or Not to Fall, That is the Question

The last two times I ran at Oak Mountain State Park, I stumbled.  Neither one by itself would have caused me to fall, yet the one three weeks ago landed me face first in the dirt with a skinned up chin and a sore nose, while the one this Saturday caused nothing more than a few accelerated steps off to the side of the trail.  Why would two almost identical stumbles end in such a dramatic difference?

I decided to talk a little about falling.  As the ultrarunning saying goes, it is not a matter of "if you will fall, but when you will fall."  I have fallen twice in one run and I have gone a year without falling.  (The year I went without falling was the year after I fell in mid October, struck my head on a rock and ended up with 24 stitches in my forehead.  That is an event you will remember.  I did not fall again until two weeks before Halloween, the following fall.  Exactly one year.  I guess that is why they call it FALL.  Do you suppose the leaves had anything to do with it!) You need to be prepared.  Actually, there are three types if falls.  The first is the stumble where you almost "catch" the fall but still end up on the ground.  The second is the fall where there was never any doubt, but you had time to get ready.  The third is "wham" with almost no warning.  

This third type fall happens so fast there is virtually no time to react.  You can try to get your hands out to ease the landing but that is about it.  This type fall happens when you catch a foot under a root or on a rock you didn't see and the foot comes to a stop and is, for all practical purposes,  locked in place.  There is little else to say about this type of fall except pay attention to the trail.

Before discussing the first two types of falls I will go over how one tries to avoid falling after stumbling, in the first place.  The trick, which you probably became very skilled at as a child, is very quick acceleration.  As you start to fall forward, spring forward while accelerating.  Sometimes it helps to take exaggerated steps. Sometimes this procedure will allow  you to literally "run back under" you center of gravity.  In some circumstances you may also be able to place a hand on the ground and push upward to help.  This works especially well going up hill.

There is a downside to accelerating and taking exaggerated steps however.  If  you do not catch the fall, when you do hit the ground you are going even faster therefore the collision with the ground will be even harder.  There is another potential problem with this sudden acceleration and especially the longer, "exaggerated" steps.  You are likely to have been running for a while at a very steady pace and the muscles become accustomed to a very constant range of movement and effort.  The sudden lunge puts a much higher force on the muscles in you legs, as does the longer step.  You can strain or even tear a muscle.  Some people go so far as to recommend not fighting a fall at all.  Personally, I don't like hitting the ground so I fight it where ever possible.

The first two types of falls (mentioned above) are different from the instantaneous fall.  As you stumble you actually have time to evaluate you situation.  The first thing to do is a quick evaluation as to whether you can avoid the fall in the first place.  If there is no chance to catch it, then my basic instinct is to roll to the left.  I have never rolled to the right.  I have no idea why, I just roll to the left.  The roll has a major advantage in that you decelerate rather than slamming into the ground.  If you are wearing a back pack it will add a little layer of protection.  If you fall straight froward there is a good chance you face will end up in the dirt or in a rock!

Here are the steps I go through when I stumble:
1.  Do a quick evaluation.  If there is a chance to avoid the fall, go for it, to a point.
2.  If you are going to fall, look where you are headed and pick out the best landing spot.
3.  Gets you hands out in front to control the landing and help you go into a roll.
4.  As you get up do a quick inventory to see if you lost anything when  you hit the ground.

That fourth step is important.  Frequently, when you fall, things fly off.  If you have on a hat, sunglasses, bottles in a belt, things in a pocket.  Check to see if everything is still in place.  Then search the ground around where you fell in case you forgot something.

Now, As to why I did a face plant on the fall three weeks ago and barely stumbled last weekend.  The first fall happened near the end of an easy final taper run before The Rocky Raccoon 100.  I stumbled slightly with my right foot which sent me off to the right of the trail.  I was headed straight for a small tree.  To catch the fall by lunging forward would have slammed my left shoulder into a 4" tree trunk.  That was not a good option.  I had room to fall to the right of the tree and roll but that would have probably placed my scapula in a direct line with the tree, or a least a few ribs.  The only safe option was to simply dive straight forward.  That is what I did but I was not able to keep my face out of the dirt and leaves.  It was a pretty hard landing.

This weeks stumble was an exact duplicate.  I stumbled with my right foot, launched of the trail to the right.  This time there was no tree in my path, just a limb I had to knock away from my face as I ran by.  I hoped back on the trail and kept going.

Of course, as mentioned earlier, the best way to avoid a fall is the to pay attention to the trail.  This will keep you safe most of the year.  In the fall and early winter, when the trail is covered in leaves, this may not even save you.  Use extra caution, especially when stepping into piles of leaves.  The lea side of rocks and along washouts in the trails require extra caution.  Be especially careful running down hill and stepping into piles of leaves.  Stepping down into a pile of leaves with your entire weight coming down on your ankle is a good way to twist and ankle or break something.

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