I was once at Karate when the teacher decided to get everyone to play a big game of tag. The idea was that it would serve as a good warm up and a way to get our blood flowing. But then one of the other teachers tripped on something and for a moment I thought they were going to face-plant. This would have been serious, seeing as the floor was wooden and he was travelling pretty fast.
But instead, he managed to curl his upper-body over and roll back onto his feet and keep moving. It was awesome.
I’d heard of ‘breakfalling’ before. In Jiu Jitsu it’s called the ‘Art of Ukemi’, which is a lot more awesome than ‘breakfalling’.
But until this point, I had always thought it was probably just nonsense. That’s not to say that I thought it couldn’t be done, just that it wouldn’t be possible to do it in the heat of the moment like that. Apparently, I was wrong!
But it’s not just martial arts experts who can benefit from breakfalls. Rather, if you’ve ever fallen over (which you almost certainly have) then you can benefit from learning to fall more safely so that it’s less likely to break your bones…
So what do you do if you’re walking or powerwalking on your way to work and you trip?
Don’t Break Your Fall With Your Wrists
As you fall, it’s very important not to lock your joints out. It can be tempting to shoot your arms out in front of you and to keep them completely rigid. However, if you do this then you’ll risk breaking your arms and your wrists.
Instead, keep your arms slightly bent. If you’re falling slowly enough, then you can catch yourself and cushion your fall by using your arms a little like springs. Just make sure they have enough give in them. And if you’re falling fast and far, try a different tactic.
If you can grab hold of something as you fall, then this is a very good strategy to slow yourself down to potentially completely prevent a painful impact. For example, grabbing a railing or even someone walking next to you can be just enough to prevent you going down hard and to avoid a broken bone or serious bruise or sprain.
If you do happen to be walking next to someone, then calling out is also a good idea. This way, they may have time to react and also help to lower you even if they can’t catch you entirely.
In circumstances where the ground isn’t flat, this may actually be your only safe recourse. For instance, if you’re falling down stairs then grabbing the side banister or railings might be the only way to avoid toppling all the way down to the bottom.
If you fall with your legs straight, then you can fall for as far as you are tall. If you bend at the knees and lower your center of gravity though, this leaves there less space for you to fall. It won’t always be possible but it can work sometimes.
If you’re going down like a tree and you can’t do anything to slow your momentum, then a good idea is to turn your body. Falling face first can smash your teeth, cause damage to your head and hurt your limbs. Conversely, if you land on your side and lift your arm so it lands on the underside, you can actually absorb a large amount of impact.
Protect Your Head
The most important thing of all as you fall is to protect your head. Even a small fall can actually be lethal if you land wrong. If you’re falling sideways then, you can cushion your head with your arm by lifting it up underneath. Better a broken elbow than a broken skull, that’s for sure!
Finally, make sure that you don’t tense up more than necessary. This is easier said than done because of course it’s a somewhat frightening sensation when you’re careening toward the ground. However, when we go tense we prevent our body from absorbing the impact naturally by bending and flexing. This is one of the reasons babies are so resilient – they’re always relaxed!
So if all else fails, twist 90 degrees, bring your arms up to protect your head and go limp!
The Art of Ukemi
Of course this isn’t what my karate instructor did though and it’s not what parkour enthusiasts do when they leap off of rooftops. To breakfall properly, the aim is to absorb the impact by turning it into a roll.
It’s highly unlikely that you’re going to manage this while moving at highspeeds and not expecting to fall unless you’ve had years of training. But just for interest, the way you would breakfall is to put one arm forward and to use it to roll. So you’re sticking one arm in the air with it curving downward to create a circle over your head. You’d then spring off of your feet and forward and then use that arm to curl yourself into a ball, rolling over your shoulder. Essentially this means you’re turning yourself into a kind of ball.
When you do this falling backward however, it becomes a lot easier. Now the aim is to bring your center of gravity lower by squatting and almost ‘sitting backward’ into a slightly backward roll. You then slap your hands down on either side to bring yourself to a stop. There are videos of guys doing these moves onto concrete and other hard surfaces. Like I say, not advisable unless you really know what you’re doing!