Learn to Fall!

I fell off my bicycle right in the middle of a city street last Sunday. My pedals locked up, which was caused by a combination of operator error (I started to downshift too late going up a steep hill) and the fact that I have a mediocre bike.

Fortunately, no cars were coming (there’s a reason I prefer riding on quiet streets), though I jumped up as fast as possible just to make sure. And it was easy to get the gears shifted properly so I could get back on the bike.

You want to know the best news? It didn’t hurt at all. I don’t even have any bruises from where I hit the pavement, much less a more serious injury like a banged up shoulder, concussion, or broken wrist. The only damage I did was a scrape on my leg where the pedal hit it as I fell, and I didn’t even notice that until the next day.

If I were a little kid, this would be normal learning-how-to ride falling, but I’m not only not a little kid, I’m old. I’m at the age where doctors start to tut-tut about the dangers of falling. And I was never flexible and now have cranky knees and other stiff joints.

But here’s what saved me: I know how to fall.

I’m not exactly sure what I did, because I jumped up so quickly and didn’t take time to analyze it based on my landing position, but I speculate that I tucked my chin and twisted my body enough so that I fell on the more padded parts of my anatomy. My shoulder must have been rounded. I didn’t reach out with my hand (which is how you break a wrist), but probably extended my arm.

The point is, my body knows how to fall safely. All I have to do is let it take over when it becomes obvious that falling is inevitable.

My falling skill comes from years of Aikido, going back to 1986. I still train a bit, though I rarely fall on the mat these days because I’m old and creaky and while falling is rarely a problem, getting up often hurts. I did a little falling at the National Women’s Martial Arts Federation camp I went to this summer, and then quit because my cranky knees protested.

But I know how to do it when I have to, which is the whole point of learning how to fall.

Everyone needs to know how to fall. A friend of mine, a nurse who also studies Aikido, has developed a system of teaching this to seniors that emphasizes some practical skills and moves away from the more martial aspects of falling.

Older people who are still in reasonably good shape, that is those who don’t have serious osteoporosis or other conditions where their bones break easily and who can get down to the ground and up by themselves, can learn some falling skills. Physical therapists teach such things in The Netherlands, though not here in the U.S.

It’s important to learn, because falls that end in broken bones can cause a serious drop in quality of life for the elderly. And you can’t tell people not to fall, because the only way you can avoid falling is to lie in bed, which is also not conducive to quality of life.

Some martial artists in the U.S. teach falling to seniors, but it’s kind of ad hoc. I wish the professionals would take it up, but the best most doctors and PTs do in the U.S. is encourage people to take up T’ai Chi to improve their balance.

That’s great and I’m all for it. But I do T’ai Chi and the last time I fell was in T’ai Chi class, landing on a concrete floor. I didn’t hurt myself then, either. Good balance isn’t always going to make up for uneven ground, not to mention locking up your bike pedals.

Since I’ve taught a lot of people to fall over my years in Aikido, I’ve seen a lot of bad falling habits. Most people want to reach out with a hand, which is how you break a wrist. Most don’t tuck their chins, which is how you hit the back of your head and get a concussion.

When you’re young, you bounce back from even bad falls. When you’re old, not so much. But even if you’re young, you’re a lot better off if you learn how to fall on a nice padded surface.

I would like to see everyone learn to fall just as I’d like to see everyone pick up some self defense training. Since there are no formal falling programs available, I encourage folks to take some Aikido, Judo, or other martial arts that include falling. I assume gymnastics and some sports also provide training in how to fall well, but I don’t know enough about those fields to evaluate them.

You don’t have to train a long time or become a superstar; you just have to get comfortable with a few basic falls. Your body will remember what to do when it needs to. That’s what physical training does for you.

Me, I got to get back on the bike and finish my expedition to the bonsai gardens, instead of taking a detour to the E.R.

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Learn to Fall! — 13 Comments

  1. I used to be practiced at falling when I was doing stage combat–but that was a different thing, because falls needed to look like trouble while being as safe as possible: safety was the second part of the equation. I know the principles of safe falling, but I’m not sure they’ve reached a level of instinct where you do it without thinking. I have osteopenia (osteoporosis’s baby brother) and need to be careful, but I think I can still learn this. I wonder how I’d find a class in Falling for Seniors…

    • If you’ll find me a place with good mats and recruit a few other students, I’ll teach one. I don’t seem to be organized enough to put together a class without help.

      • I’ll keep an eye out. I used to fall more often–mostly from turning my ankle, which is weak–but **KNOCK WOOD** haven’t recently. I fall less often when I’m reading as I walk–I guess because I scan around the edges of my book. Also, oddly, I’ve noticed that I scan less well when I’m reading on a screen than on paper. Still considering what this means (aside from the superiority of paper books for reading while walking).

  2. My wife is always amazed on how I can fall. There’s no way she can learn to fall well, falling will always be a danger to her. She got really scared when I missed a curb, placed my iPad down carefully as I was falling, did a flip and picked up my iPad, stopping only when I discovered how upset she was. This is natural to me, and impossible for her. There are some people in between our natures who can learn to fall better, but I don’t think we can do anything more at our two extremes.

    • Because I don’t know you (except through your interesting comments on this blog from time to time) or your wife, I don’t have a very useful response, except to say that there are some very simple moves that are useful in a fall, such as learning to tuck your chin so that you don’t hit the back of your head, that I suspect most people can learn to do. And such moves can be practiced while seated on a thick mat on the floor, so that they’re not scary. Since everybody falls, I think learning even a couple of such moves can be very handy.

  3. I’m an old (82) pretty-much-non-athletic-but-active guy. In the last five years I’ve fallen twice – mostly through lack of attention. The first fall was from a stub-toe on a darkened sidewalk. The second was from descending the back steps (again, darkened) and thinking I was completely down the steps – I had one more to go. The first fall was a loopedly-loop stumble forward and try to catch yourself kind of thing that resulted in a badly dislocated little finger on my left hand from reaching out. The second was a simple crash-landing on hands and knees resulting in some pretty strange bruises on my knees. While neither of these injuries was serious (except that I can’t straighten my little finger), both were quite painful for some time and both could have been much worse. Both of these falls happened so fast I really had zero time to think about what to do except the gut reaction to save myself somehow. I guess my point is that even though I strongly endorse and applaud what you are saying about learning to fall, it may be at least as important to remember to pay attention to where and how one is moving. That has been my practice since these two tumbles and now, with your reminder, I’m going to seek out someone who will help me learn to fall.

    • Paying attention is important. And if you wear trifocals or even bifocals, it’s really important to lean over as you look down so that you’re looking through the distance viewing part and not the print-reading part.

      Also, glad you’re OK. The most important thing about all this is to land in such a way that you do the minimum of damage. Bruises and even jammed fingers hurt, but they’re better than broken bones or hitting the back of your head.

      And I don’t want to sound like I’m opposed to taking up T’ai Chi and related practices like Qigong. Those are very good for general health and for balance. I just know we’re all going to fall anyway. I’m glad I know how and I hope we’ll get to a point where physical therapists in the U.S. start teaching this as well.

  4. My aunt taught me how to ski when I was 8… the very FIRST thing we practiced was how to fall, and how to get up. First falling as I just stood on the skis, then pushing off and immediately, purposely, falling.

    Looking back on it, it was one of the bigger lessons I have ever learned.

  5. The last time I fell (some twenty years ago) I fell fine, but someone, well several someones, landed on top of me and my shoulder wasn’t tucked in enough so the tip of my clavicle snapped off. Broken bones, even when it’s a bit not connected to anything else, hurt so I shall look for a way to learn to fall as I don’t wish to repeat that experience. Thank you for writing about it!

    • Argh. I’m not sure anything could have protected you from that! Other people falling on you complicates the experience.

      Something I should have addressed more thoroughly: part of the purpose of learning to fall is to minimize your injuries. You might still get hurt, just not as bad. There are things you can’t avoid, like furniture in your way or other people. The main thing is to avoid the most debilitating injuries, like concussions for everyone and broken bones as you get on in years.