Runners Education: Lightning and Runner Safety
This is another installation in a series of runners education articles written by UW Health Sports Medicine staff.
When training for long runs, runners may be caught outside during bouts of unexpected severe weather. It is important to be aware of what to do when conditions suddenly deteriorate and severe weather approaches.
The most common severe weather problem is lightning. A typical spring and summer occurrence, the danger lightning presents is often underestimated and safety measures are often misunderstood.
Lightning commonly strikes within six miles of a previous strike, although it has been known to strike as far as 10 miles away. Based on this data, the National Athletic Trainers Association established recommendations that all activities cease and participants and spectators find adequate shelter when lightning strikes are six miles from an event. This has since been endorsed by the American Association of Pediatrics, the National Federation of High Schools, the WIAA and many other health care and athletic entities. The NCAA has adopted guidelines that mirror these recommendations.
Indicators to Seek Safety
Two methods are used as indicators to find shelter when lightning is seen.
- See it, flee it: This rule provides the greatest measure of safety. Its rules suggest you seek out a safe shelter immediately upon seeing lighting and only resume activities after 30 minutes have passed without a lightning strike.
- The 30/30 rule: This provides the narrowest margin that is considered acceptably safe. Thunder travels at roughly one mile every five seconds. If you see a lightning flash, begin counting. If you hear thunder prior to reaching 30 seconds - the time it takes thunder to travel six miles from the lightning strike - suspend the practice/event and seek adequate shelter. After 30 minutes has passed without a lightning strike, you may resume your outdoor activity.
There will be times where you do not see lightning but hear thunder. Lightning may be arching in the clouds and remain unseen until it is too late. In general, if you can hear thunder but cannot see lightning, seek shelter.
Safe and Unsafe Shelters
Many people who seek shelter when lightning storms approach remain in significant danger because they have chosen an unsafe shelter. Many sheltered areas are more dangerous than open areas.
- Safe shelters: Structures with deep, in-ground materials; permanent structures that have piping, telephone lines and other materials that will direct any lightning strikes deep into the ground; vehicles with a metal or solid roof (which provide protection from lightning as long as individuals do not touch the metal framing of the vehicle).
Note: Many people believe that tires provide protection from lightning. This is incorrect. The metal frame conducts the electricity away from those inside the vehicle. A soft-top convertible will not provide adequate protection. It is not safe to be in a vehicle during severe hail or high wind/tornado situations.
- Unsafe shelters: Non-permanent structures such as sheds; trees and foliage; under bleachers; near tall objects; in wet/watery areas (standing water or excessively wet areas/ungrounded swimming pools/showers/bath tubs); talking on a landline telephone or other wired system (microphone)
If you are outside during a lightning storm and feel your hair stand up or have a tingly feeling, or are caught outside with no refuge, put your feet close together and go into a tuck position (squatted down and hugging your knees, if possible).
Lightning tends to hit or ricochet into taller objects, or conducts through the ground. By making yourself "small," you decrease the probability of being hit directly by lightning or indirectly from a ricochet of the lightning, and are also less likely to be hit by lightning traveling through the ground.