Most of us train or exercise, at least in part, to stay healthy. If we do it in such a way that it significantly increases our chances of getting hit by a car, being mugged or injured in any other way, it sort of defeats the purpose, right?
Fortunately, there are lots of things that we can do to decrease the chances of our well intentioned workouts backfiring and doing more harm than just staying on the couch. These are things I try to make part of my training to protect myself, my children and others. I am sure there are many more than I have written below, but this is a good start!
Let me tell you a story: After this where I fell (with a helmet and no car involved) from my bike at jogging pace, hit my head, was unconscious for a few minutes and suffered from whiplash and concussion, I commented to a friend how shocked I was at the damage to my helmet from such a low speed fall. He responded that his mother had been found unconscious after falling from her bike during a gentle ride without a bike helmet. She remained unconscious, in a coma, for three months and nine years later she has virtually no short term memory and the damage to her frontal lobe still affects her behaviour. It could have been much, much worse... as it is for countless others.
Helmets are absolutely essential for cycling. Even if you are only cycling slowly, even if there are no cars near you, even if there are no other bikes near you, even if conditions are good and you think you’re not going to crash, wear a helmet for every moment you are on your bike and make sure that anyone you care about wears one too. Take care of your helmet, replace it if it takes a knock or has indications of wear or damage. There is some good advice here. Make sure your helmets are the right size and that the chin straps are adjusted to fit properly.
For cycling, even a cheap pair of clear glasses meant for DIY, or any pair of sunglasses are better than nothing. Having a screen between your eyes and debris flicked up from the road, or insects flying into your face can make your ride much more fun but also could save you from an eye infection, irritation or even serious injury and loss of sight.
Whether you are running, cycling, rollerblading, walking, whatever... if you are doing it in the dark put lights on. If you're on your bike, red lights on the back and white lights on the front - i reckon you can never have too many and often have three on the back and two on the front of my bike. I also wear bright and reflective clothing.
Make yourself (and your blood type) known
Carry ID, preferably ID with more than just your name. We use safety ID bands and stickers. I have a reflective one for my wrist, so do my children, I also have a tag on my shoe and we all have reflective bands on our cycle helmets that contain all of our emergency information - name, blood type, allergies, emergency contacts, etc. Having this readily available to anyone can mean the difference between getting treatment in time to save your life or not. It also doubles up for if the kids ever get separated from us, in an airport or shopping mall etc.
Don’t get burnt
Sun protection in hot weather will save you a lot of pain in the hours and days after your workout (and potentially from skin cancer even later than that). If you can, train and race when the sun is not high in the sky. Otherwise, use all the obvious stuff: cream, hats, arm protectors and gloves for cycling.
And last but not least
If you’re going anywhere off of the beaten track, or with large gaps in civilisation around you, a mobile phone (sufficiently charged) might come in useful, as would a small amount of cash - enough for transport home or to pay to use a phone.
Obvious - don't train when you're drunk or hungover. Seriously - it's just not efficient. If you really must drink so much that you have a hangover, try to organise yourself so you are not scheduled to train the next morning, so you can take your time to mope around and recover.
Make sure you're well hydrated, all the time, not just when you’re training. Chronic dehydration can have really horrendous consequences –in the extreme case, death – it can also lead to weakened tendons and ligaments. My sister had been dehydrated for a few days before she snapped her Achilles tendon a few years ago when we were living in Dubai. There are many papers written about the links between dehydration and connective tissue damage.
For practising fuel efficiency or for shorter workouts I use a few drops of elete electrolytes in my water - for hydration without calories this is ideal, as it is also great if you prefer to take on calories by eating solid food or gels. If you want an all in one drink, try one of the “isotonic” or “energy” drinks, most of which have electrolytes and quick release carbohydrates in one.
Fatigue and illness
Be honest with yourself here; “honest”, I said. That doesn’t mean “soft” and it’s not an easy excuse for when you’re feeling lazy. However, when you're feeling below par, rest up, including lots and lots of sleep, eat fruit & veggies, drink lots of water, take vitamin and mineral supplements, and stay off of the alcohol. Trying to keep ploughing through an illness or injury will only drag it out, make your recovery much slower and render any training hard and pointless.
Fever: If you have a fever, you should be resting. Your body is working hard enough at getting rid of whatever lurgy you have… don’t try and load it up with more work and raise your temperature even further with strenuous exercise. Training with a fever will do your immune system no favours.
Cough/ Cold: There’s (in my opinion) a myth that goes something like “If it’s below the neck, rest up. If it’s above the neck, carry on as usual.” I don’t think it is a clear cut as this. Sometimes you can continue training as usual with a little sniffle, but most of the time it slows recover, or makes the illness even worse. With cough or cold symptoms, you should probably try to take cues from accompanying indicators too, such as heart rate, feelings of lethargy, fever, etc.
Heart rate: If your resting heart rate is elevated by more than about 10 bpm, it’s not a good sign. You might be able to use it to confirm that you’re feeling a little under the weather, or it could be the first symptom of something coming. It is probably better to back off a little bit.
I say, if in doubt, rest up. It’s always better to be under-trained and healthy than well-trained but sick.
Safety in numbers
Cycle (or run) in groups – it is much more likely that cars will see you and far less likely to get stranded - for example if your bike breaks or you have more punctures than you have spare tubes.
Do not swim alone, ever, ever. If you are not swimming somewhere with lifeguards on duty, always swim with a 'buddy' either in the water with you or watching from outside. Even the strongest swimmers can have a bad spell, get a cramp, get caught in a current, etc.
Be aware of your surroundings
Know your way
Plan your routes so you know where you are, and someone else does too - especially important if you are going out alone. It means you are less likely to get lost in 'undesirable' areas of town, less likely to get lost and stranded and more likely to get found if you cannot get back for any reason.
Earphones are awesome - listening to music can really help keep you going during a tough or long training session. BUT, a big but, we must remember to use them safely. Earphones are best suited to the gym, treadmill, indoor trainer or in other predictable, safe environments.
Don’t cycle outside with earphones, ever, ever, ever. If you want music whilst cycling, buy yourself an indoor trainer, cycle in a gym or play it out loud.
Even when running, if there is any chance of someone (with less than honourable intentions) trying to sneak up on you, or a potential collision with anyone else using the path that you’re running on, it’s better to leave the earphones at home. If you are running in an area where there are cars, for example, a road with no pavement, definitely make sure you can hear what’s going on around you.