Run Wild: The Right Way to Fall

I was out for a run on an early August morning—sun up, blue sky, birds singing, the whole deal—when about a mile from home I lost my balance, fell on the sidewalk, and fractured my elbow.

This is not how I pictured a running-related fall going (literally) down. As a near-professional worrier, fretting is kind of my jam, and for running that mostly means I focus on not being assaulted and not slipping in the winter. Ice is near the top of my watch list. I wear traction aids faithfully. I keep a vigilant eye on conditions. I walk slick patches, slow down on hills, and run after the morning thaw as often as possible. 

All this is to say, a random fall on an easy breezy August morning was not on my anxiety radar. But that’s what happened: one instant I was running, the next I was flying.There was no split second of jerky, dizzy panic as I tried to steady myself—I was just suddenly aware that I was hurtling toward the ground. I landed with my arms outstretched, hands and knees catching the impact. I examined my injuries: bloody gashes on my palms and my knees, all caked with gravel and sand. My headphone cord had snapped on impact. I wiped off the blood as best I could and started the slow walk back home. I thought that was the worst of it, but as the day progressed I noticed increasing numbness and tingling in my left arm. In the evening I called a physical therapist friend, who encouraged me to go into urgent care. They gave me the verdict: fracture of the radial head.

In the realm of running-related injuries, I recommend the minor elbow fracture. Mine was small and easy enough to recover from, treatable with rest time in a sling and, after a certain point, some exercises. Nonetheless, it was definitely an inconvenience—my livelihood depends 100 percent on typing at a computer, which was impossible. Day-to-day life presented new challenges. My husband picked up lots of slack, and my daughters rose to the occasion to take on things I could no longer handle, fighting over brand-new topics like who got to push the grocery cart or fasten the backs of my earrings and the hooks of my bra.

One thing my injury helped me realize is that while I’ve poured a lot of mental energy into avoiding falls, I’ve spent zero time thinking about how to fall well. I asked my friend and running buddy Erika Ellis, a doctor of physical therapy who works at Stepping Stones, to give me a few tips. (In an ironic twist, just before we talked about this on the phone, she tripped while running and took a nasty fall of her own.) 

“I think your experience is pretty classic,” Ellis says. She says it’s natural to catch ourselves with our arms (what physical therapists refer to with the acronym FOOSH for “falling on outstretched hands”), an instinctive response that protects vital body parts like the head and abdomen. The downside is that a FOOSH often results in less severe but still undesirable injuries, like the fracture of the hand, wrist, and elbow. 

Often there is no fraction of a second to think about much of anything, but if you canrecognize that you’re falling and react, Ellis says it’s wise to tuck in limbs, cover your head, and allow the majority of the impact to contact the fleshier parts of your body—like “the outside of your shoulder, the outside of your hip, or your butt.” 

Ellis also advised me on what notto do in a fall situation: fight hard against gravity. “Probably the worst thing to do,” she says, “is to try to avoid the fall, because then we put our bodies in all sorts of suboptimal positions.” In other words, we stretch in ways we’re not meant to, which can result in torn ACLs, sprained ankles, and the like. Athletes in sports where falls are commonplace, like football and gymnastics, tend to have more practice and training in falling well. For runners, “it’s not a component of what we do,” Ellis says. As much as I hope falling won’t become a regular part of my life, it can’t hurt to funnel a little bit of my mental energy into something helpful, like envisioning myself doing a successful tuck and roll the next time I go flying. Anything can happen to any of us, any time. It’s how we respond that matters. 

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