With training error reportedly involved in as much as 80% of running injuries it makes sense to know how to avoid it. Prevention is better than cure and all that. It's simple though isn't it? Just don't over do it!? Well there is a little more to it than that…
- Change your training gradually – Training has so many variables, when we think about training error we commonly think of just the one, mileage. We have some guidance there with the 10% rule but what about the other factors; speed, frequency, training intensity, hill work, interval training, running surface etc etc? Most of us have heard of the 10% rule, it suggests you don't increase your weekly mileage by more than 10%. I know many runners who don't agree with it, saying it's too simplistic. It may be, but at least it gives us some kind of guidance. Most runners have a 'breaking point' – a limit to their weekly mileage, if they work above this they start to pick up injuries and then this point gets lower. It's likely this breaking point is hugely variable between runners and also during a runner's lifetime. Strength and conditioning work will probably increase this breaking point and what you do with that mileage is important too. You may manage 60+ miles a week of low intensity running, but just 20 if it's all speed and hill work. Introducing anything new should be done carefully, this includes new shoes, new types of training or running on a new surface. Our bodies are excellent at adapting to change, just look at all those people that have trained their bodies to run marathon distances and beyond. The only issue is adaptation takes time. Interval training and hill work are probably the most risky forms of training in terms of injury and should be approached cautiously, especially for inexperienced runners. Running downhill is known to be associated with patellofemoral pain and ITB issues, while uphill running places a great stress on the calf and Achilles. Speed work will challenge hamstrings, especially as you speed up and slow down. According to this excellent injury prevention article even Olympic gold medalists only do 5-10% of their training at 5k race pace and above, bare that in mind if you introduce speed work.
- Don't be a slave to numbers – by this I mean don't decide you'll do a certain distance and force yourself to stick with it even if it's clearly the wrong thing to do. I was on a 10 mile run recently, at mile 7 my knee tightened to a point where I didnt feel I could really control it very well. Did I stop? No, I was doing a 10 mile run and 10 miles was what I was going to do. I've learned the hard way that sometimes you need a little flexibility. Sure, runs can be hard but it's important to recognise when to stop and when to push on. If you're struggling with a niggle, set a distance range e.g. 4-6 miles not a definite 6. Then go by feel rather than sticking to a mileage because your schedule or your mind says so. No point doing that and then being out injured for 2 weeks.
- Embrace variety – If you do a lot of your runs at a similar pace on the same routes the stress on your body doesn't vary a great deal and this can lead to overload of certain structures. A mixture of training often helps counteract this. I've mentioned before it's easy to be a 2 speed runner. Mix up your runs with interval training, long slow runs and tempo runs but make any changes gradually. If you are thinking about starting interval training there is a sample beginners programme here (one of hundreds online) and for hill work there is this lengthy piece from RW who have a load of general training advice available here too. If you'd like an estimate of your pace for a variety of training runs try the MacMillan calculator. You enter a recent race result and it will give you an idea of appropriate speeds for endurance and interval work. The site admits it is only an estimate but it can offer some guidance. If you find you're mainly a road runner, you may benefit from some trail running. The uneven surfaces place a mixture of stresses on the body rather than repeatedly loading the same area. You often also get rewarded with some amazing views once you leave the roads behind. As well as changing running surface you can change how you run a little. Reducing stride length is thought to reduce stress on the hips and knees, I've found it very helpful to stop my knee feeling tight. You may also consider “cycling” your shoes – using 2 or 3 different pairs to keep the stresses on your body changing and prevent reliance on one type of shoe. Again if you choose to do this, introduce it slowly, don't head off for a 15 miler in shoes straight out of the box!
- Pick 1 goal for each run – problems often occur when runners try to achieve too much at once. I've done this myself, during my marathon training I ran my long runs far too fast and picked up injuries as a result. My goal should have been just endurance by I tried to work speed too and paid the price. This goal is actually harder than you might think. Last week I did a “recovery run”, mid way through I hit my favourite long stretch where I do most of my speed work…I just couldn't resist it, I put on the afterburners and sped up from 8 minute mile to bellow 6 minute mile pace! It felt great but totally defeated the object of the run!
- Rest enough – our bodies use rest time to recharge energy stores and repair and adapt to the stresses running places on them. A lot of runners hate rest but it is essential. Research has also suggested that those who train all year round without a break are more likely to get injured. It might be that the occasional 2 week break to recuperate might do you the world of good. We've mentioned in previous posts here how tendons take roughly 24 hours to repair after running, so that running everyday can lead to the breakdown of tendon tissue we see in tendinopathy. If you are prone to this scheduling rest days between each run is a sensible precaution. Listen to your body and don't run through pain, more on when to rest and when to run from RunningPhysio here.
- Include strength and conditioning – consider replacing one of your weekly runs with a strength and conditioning session. Research has suggested it can improve running economy and it is likely to reduce injury risk. Tackle the big three – strength, balance and flexibility – a little work on all three can go a long way.
- Stay hydrated and well fuelled – it's very hard to run on empty and certainly not pleasureable. We've all done it, an evening run, straight after work when half way round you've just got nothing left. Running form starts to suffer and this can easily lead to injury.
- Plan your training – having some form of training plan can help a great deal in injury prevention. It helps you to monitor and progress your mileage, include a variety of types of training, strength work and appropriate rest. It can also help when returning from injury to facilitate a gradual return and avoid the mistake of coming straight back to the same intensity that the injury occurred at. But allow some flexibility. Your plan is a guide that can be varied a bit should injury or life get in the way. Technology is a great help here, modern GPS watches allow you to upload a training schedule that can be downloaded for free online. RW has a host of training plans and I found there marathon one especially helpful. The one i chose included details on each run including distance and pace as well as a gradual introduction to hill and speed work. Even when not training for a specific event a training plan can help you achieve fitness goals or add consistency to your running.
Final thoughts: part of being a runner is the instinct that more running is the best thing to do to improve, even when all evidence tells us differently. We've all known runners, struggling with an injury, who try to squeeze in one more long run prior to a marathon when it's more likely to hinder than help. The question to ask yourself is what is most likely to help my running? If you're honest sometimes the answer is rest, sometimes it's rehab, it isn't always more running.