Here’s a thing on 5 simple ways to seriously decrease running-related injury risk. This stuff works. I give this info to the runners I treat in the clinic all the time. I won’t even charge you a co-pay!
1) Vary Volume – One of the first things I ask my athletes when they come to me with a new running injury is what their training has looked like over the last three months. A rapid increase in weekly mileage is usually a factor in overuse injuries, but the injury-inducing trend I am never shocked by is a consistent increase in training without any honest attempt at a recovery week. Runners love increasing weekly volume by 5 miles, but they hate taking every third or fourth week to drop by 5-15 miles and let their tissues and nervous and hormonal systems recover for the next phase of training. Do you know what happens to the stock market after it’s irrationally skyrocketed for years at a time? It “corrects.” One way or another your body is going to take a break from kicking ass, too. Better to be safe and bring up fitness over years than months. There is some data to suggest that the last six weeks of running volume, on average, gives a decent indication of what kind of training volume your body can handle. Strava and several other fitness Apps will track the last 4 weeks for you and make it easy to see how you can progress safely. But you have to go by feel, too. If your body feels trashed or your form is off, maybe it’s time to take an early down week. Or even better, it’s time to shift gears and alter speeds DURING training so you can feel better without dropping miles or taking fitness killing time off due to an injury.
2) Change Speeds – Recent data from several fitness apps shows that faster runners are injured less often. Beyond the obvious assumption that healthier runners can train harder and run faster as a result of not being sidelined with ITBS or runner’s knee, there’s a hidden injury prevention gem to be found here. Changing your running speed changes the way you run and how you strain the muscles, tendons and other tissues in your body. The runners who get chronically injured, in my clinical and coaching experience, tend to run the same speeds, on the same days, on the same routes for MONTHS. Faster runners tend to have 2-3 days a week where they are moving up to 60-90 seconds per mile faster than typical recovery/easy run pace. That’s a significant shift in speed, therefore a significant change in mechanical loads and stress. Sprinting, jogging, tempo runs and strides all change the way your body moves, lands and looks when you run. Try taking cell phone video of your stride as you run on a track or treadmill at different speeds. You might be amazed at how your step rate (how many times your foot hits the ground in a minute), stride length (how far your leg reaches ahead/behind your trunk), and foot strike (the way your foot lands on the ground; i.e., heel vs fore or midfoot) change when you shift gears. If you’re a runner that feels like all you do is pound your heel into the ground at every speed, take a look at the next strategy.
3) Switch Surfaces – Depending on the surface and angle your foot lands when you run, the body has to adapt differently to make sure you stay upright and steady. Which means you aren’t just getting the same joint, tendon and muscle stresses on repeat. Trails, track and grass infields are a great secondary option for road runners looking to offload their legs from consistent mechanical stresses. Trails, in particular, can be great because the stiffness and angle of your landing surface can consistently shift, mitigating your body’s exposure to potentially injurious repetitive impact stresses. If you’re stuck on the concrete, you can always change the shoes you’re wearing one or two days a week on your recovery or cross training days. Walking barefoot around home is also a decent strategy for lowering injury risk without any added training time – just be careful of any toys your kid or dog might have left on the stairs.
4) Performance and injury-prevention focused strength + mobility – It’s better to spend 20 minutes, two times a week pumping iron than it is to have to pump the brakes on your training for even a day. Where do you start with exercise selection? My top recommendation is to see a local Physical Therapist, strength coach or other certified fitness professional who can review your injury history and training goals, and develop a plan that fits your schedule and needs. A solid plan can keep you healthy with 2-3 twenty minute sessions a week and 5-10 minutes a day of mobility and corrective exercises. Trust me when I say that it takes way less effort and time to stay out of the injury hole than it does to crawl crying and cranky back out of it. My clients usually notice a difference in the way they feel with training and recovery within 10 days to two weeks of adding a few short strength and recovery sessions to their weekly calendar.
5) Recover wisely – This is where almost everyone falls in a trap. One cannot simply foam roll their way out of an overtraining habit. Even smart running damages the body and restoration of tissue and hormonal profiles is required. Protein bombs and bulletproof kale/whatever can’t hold a candle to the recovery solutions that normal humans have long relied on.
– 8-9 hours of sleep, however you get it, is the best place to start. 7 hours at a minimum. This isn’t just for running, FYI. There is a ton of evidence that chronic sleep loss is implicated in several chronic and neurological diseases. This isn’t just about your training and racing. It’s about your life.
– Actually rest one day a week. Really. Literally just don’t do anything. So un-American, but so helpful.
– Treat your post and between run diet like it matters. It does. Eat for a purpose and your body will notice the difference.
I typically tell my athletes who want to qualify for Boston that they need 300 focused days of injury-free training for a year. It’s not the number that counts. It’s the concept of percentages. If you take one day off a week to rest, on average, you need to be not sick and not injured 95% of the year to get in about 300 days worth of training. That is mad consistency. And if you can train with consistent, pain-free effort, then you have a chance at doing work that makes a difference in your training, racing, and life. No quad shocking, calf smashing voodoo, or shady dark web injectables required.