A lone skier is dwarfed by the depth of the late April snowpack

A lone skier is dwarfed by the depth of the late April snowpack in the San Juans this year. 

What goes up must come down. When these deep snows finally melt off, there will be many downhill hikers and runners whose legs will feel their descents.

Mentally preparing for springtime’s trails may prevent unnecessary cases of heel pain, kneecap pain, and shin splints. While those conditions lend themselves to good resolution with the proper hands-on treatment, consider the following simple preventive techniques and possibly spare yourself the injury at the outset.

Be sure you are wearing a supportive running shoe with an outer sole meant for trails. This will assure you of the best possible traction. You want to be actually running downhill, not sliding and slipping on a shoe meant for pavement.

Foot placement is an acquired art, and an art that can be learned. It is important to learn how to read a trail. Placing one’s foot in the right place may prevent injury to the knee’s ligaments, especially the anterior cruciate ligament (often damaged by skiing the moguls, and referred to by its nickname, the A.C.L).


Do not watch where you put your feet. Instead, watch where you are going to put your feet. Be purposeful about having your brain record the image of the rocks and roots in the trail. Then your feet and legs can more readily act on this recorded image.

Direct your eyes to actively scout three to six feet ahead of where your current footfall is landing. The time delay aspect of reading the trail like this requires focused attention and practice, but it pays off in speed and stability and lessened chances of A.C.L. damage.

Should we try for heel, mid-foot or forefoot landing? For a “beliefs and attitudes” scientific research study which I published, I had surveyed and interviewed hundreds of champion mountain runners in the USA and Austria regarding downhill running technique. Being elite athletes with thousands of miles of mountain running experience, most of them recommend landing on the mid-foot and allowing the arch to absorb shock, as it is designed to do.

Even on steeper downhills at high speeds, this mid-foot landing zone is used instead of the forefoot zone. The stride must be shortened to keep the runner on his or her feet (and not on his or her hands and knees from an overambitious rate of speed).

One’s shoes are likely to get wet in crossing remaining snowfields after midday. Wet shoes, of course, require compensation in stride length and foot placement for safety’s sake. You would not be out of line if you were to carry a dry pair of socks in your jacket pocket during your run or hike, would you?

Rollin’ and Tumblin’

Just as a cyclist is taught how to fall properly, a runner can benefit from even a little forethought in planning for this infrequent occurrence.

As in all health care issues, prevention is best. Prevention requires attention. Downhill running on a trail is not a good place to be wearing earbuds with your favorite music pounding away, unless you are only jogging very slowly.

Gravel may slip under you, a toe may catch a root, sunglasses may hide a shaded edge, or a wet rock may surprise you. You as a runner have only a few hundredths of a second to either: a) prepare to regain footing, or b) prepare to minimize the effects of the fall.

Hands and arms can cushion the body into a roll if you avoid locking the elbow. Protect the head, face and chest. It is not unusual for a practiced runner to regain his or her feet after employing a single barrel roll.

Be prepared for a wave of nausea a few seconds later. The cerebellum, the magnificently capable balance center at the back and base of the brain, will have suddenly received scrambled data from the body’s position sensors located in the joints. Your nervous system will react to this distorted input.

First comes the elation of having avoided a hard impact. A moment later you may feel like you have just exited the inverted roller coaster at Elitch’s Six Flags, after a heavy lunch.

It can be useful to have previously practiced falling, by jumping and rolling in a grassy city park. Forward, obliquely, sideways, all can help to train the hands, arms, legs, and cerebellum to lessen or eliminate damage from a future fall. (Go ahead and practice this, and feel like a kid again.)

Just as the rhythms in cycling, skiing, or playing catch with a baseball, the rhythm of running can cast a bit of a spell, even more than that of brisk hiking. The focused attention of symmetrical arm and leg motion, breathing, and visual cues for foot placement amid beautiful outdoor vistas offers an unparalleled sensory experience.

Prevent that injury. Be safe, be wise, be prepared, but be out there enjoying it.

John T. Unger is a Diplomate of the American Chiropractic Board of Sports Physicians, with over twenty-five years of practice in Montrose. He gives thanks knowing that this deep snowpack is our water for the summer growing season. Ideas for future columns are welcomed at sportsdocunger.com.


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