Learning to Fall…And Other Winter Running Advice

Certain running and walking skills seem intuitive.  First, figure out how you heave that body forward.  Next, reduce the chicken-wing flappage.  When you’ve mastered those, keep your chin up so that you avoid fire hydrants and low-hanging branches (and breathe).  Find your pace.  Figure out how to breathe in and out without sounding like an ashthma attack is imminent.

And then there are other, less talked about skills.  For men, there’s Running Bladder 101 (also known as “how to find an alley during a race”.)  For women, there’s Monthly Management (also known as “how to time your half marathon or marathon schedule to match your cycle”.)  And then, there are the skills we don’t tell you about when you become a runner: to wit, Winter Running Rules.   My favorite lesson: Learning How To Fall Without Breaking Something.

Yes, you read correctly.  Apparently, there are even tips, tricks, and guidelines out there to minimize the damage that will occur when (and it will be when) you wipe out this winter.  The first season I ran outdoors, I remember being terrified that I was going to wipe out at any moment.  I had learned to walk on ice and snow in Chicago (never step with just the tip-toes, always place the whole foot down, but lightly, and land almost flat-footed, so that when you push off, you’re not pushing off on the toes, which can slip out from under you, but off the whole foot, which is more stable.  You look like Frankenstein in snow boots, but it works.)  And though I’d mastered the art of walking around downtown, I had not learned how to run in ice and snow.  So, for you, intrepid readers, a few life lessons I’ve gathered over the years.

  • If you run or walk on a path, and it’s icy (but there’s snow on the adjacent path) consider running or walking in the snow.  Your shoes find better purchase on snow than on ice, assuming you can find even a bit of fresh snow.  Obviously, if there’s 3 inches of fluffy grass hiding yard holes, I wouldn’t recommend this, but if you’ve got margins around the path, use them.
  • Invest in a pair of Yaktrax Pro.  These babies are like snowchains for your feet.  Slide them on, strap in, and you can run or walk anywhere in the winter – even on ice – without the slippage.  (Okay, on the ice you STILL have to be careful, but it’s definitely a step up.)  Aside – these make great presents for your parents – I bought a pair for my mother after she confessed to wiping out in the middle of Anderson Ferry Road in Cincinnati while walking the dog one morning.  She hasn’t taken them off her snowboots since.

  • Learn how to fall.  Somewhere along the way, I figured that reducing impending medical bills was an important enough priority, and I tried to take the advice of the “experts” to address my inevitable clutz-assured wipe out.    Runner’s World published a piece in 2006 that has stuck with me for the past three years – at least, part of it.  Titled “Ensure a Safe Landing”, it recommends three approaches:

 Avoid a face plant by tucking your chin – AND (CRITICAL ADVICE) attempting to break the fall with your hands.  (This results in what my doctor called “FOOSHING” – F-alling O-n O-ut S-tretched Hand (F-O-O-S-H), which leads to most wrist fractures when folks trip and fall.)

Sidestep trouble – basically, mid-fall, try to twist to the side, so you land on your bum, or side, and not on your back.

  • Go for an even landing – (this one, I kind of forget about) – basically, keep your wrists, elbows, and knees bent, and draw them in close, so you land like a baby in a crib.  Or something like that.

As always, nothing beats common sense.  Slow down when it’s craptastic out.  It’s harder to run, and you’re going to feel terrible the first time you try to run in snow or ice.  I believe it was last year when we plowed through 5 inches of snow one morning for a CES run, and by the time I hit the two mile turnaround, I was done.  It happens.  Don’t expect these runs to be simple.   Muscles you didn’t know you had are going to be saying nasty little things to you, but ignore them.  You know what’s good for the soul.

Be prepared.  You might be out longer than you thought – so take fluids, gloves, and a hat.  You might not need them on the way OUT for your run, but sometimes the return trip is a completely different animal.  Here, if I do an out and back course heading North, I’m assured that at least one way, there will be a headwind.  If that headwind is 10-20 MPH, it means I’m significantly cooler – or warmer- heading in one direction.  Layer up, and be prepared for the difference.  Last year, we did a 5k predictor run one night.  The entire way out, it was sleeting – SIDEWAYS.  So, on the way out, I had a left-face full of slush. On the way back, right-face.  Nothing I could do but turn the baseball cap sideways.

Carry a cellphone, runner’s ID, and cash.  You never know when something might happen, and particularly as the days get shorter, there are fewer people on the paths whom you can turn to for help.  Always assume you’ll have to get yourself back to where you started – and be prepared with a phone, ID and cash to help you do it.

If you’re not running from home (i.e. from a store), bring clothes to change into.  Pronto, get out of those sweaty, wet clothes – they’re a recipe for hypothermia.  Bring a stash of everything (and I mean EVERYTHING) in your gym bag to help you post-run.   This is most important if you plan to meet someone (hypothetically) for a Grande Skim Latte and a weekly conversational download after the run.

And finally, don’t forget to look up.  Winter running, though occasionally tough, presents some of the most gorgeous, quiet, inspiring scenery you’ll see all year.  While everyone else is inside, running like rats in a cage, you have the opportunity to run through amazing snowstorms, beautiful dawns, and quiet nights.   So don’t shy away from the winter run – just be prepared to take those lessons, and use them wisely.

See you on the path….

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