5 Things Runners Can Do to Prevent Breaking Down with an Injury
I first started running back in 2007 as a way to relieve stress. As a student at the University of Wisconsin, I spent many hours hunched over a computer screen, and I desperately needed to get out of the library. I was not happy with my first run. Actually, I was downright disgusted with the hole I had dug myself into from a fitness perspective, barely being able to jog through a mile. That disgust combined with my competitive nature caused me to go all-out with running. Right away I was trying to run three to five miles a day, at least five days a week, along with minimal strength and core work. Not to mention, at the time I thought static stretching before a workout was the right thing to do (spoiler alert: it’s NOT!).
It should come as no surprise that I soon developed a stress reaction in my left foot. I tried to power through it with running, but eventually I had to stop due to the sharp pain I felt even while walking to class. Afterwards, I ended up not running for about three months. I had run head first into the “terrible toos”, which is exactly what I want to help you avoid.
The Terrible Toos
The terrible toos are “too much, too soon, too fast”. Running is a hard sport, and if you go out and do too much mileage or run too fast (or both), your body is going to breakdown in some fashion.
So, how do you know what’s too much or too fast? How do you know where to start? Unfortunately, there’s no one right way that will work for everyone because everybody and every body is different. We all have different athletic pasts, and are at different levels of fitness, plus there are a myriad of other factors that could come into play. There are, however, some general rules we can follow to help avoid injury and setbacks:
Many people think they must run hard to get faster and improve their times. While this is true to a point, you also need to recover properly from hard workouts to perform your best. If you don’t allow for recovery, you will get stuck in a rut, constantly performing at a moderate level, neither easy, nor hard. This will greatly increase the risk for an overuse injury and not allow you to reach your full potential.
Pacing and the Three C’s
To avoid this rut, it is important to make your easy days EASY and your hard days HARD. Easy pace means you run slow, likely slower than you think you should. This is where the three C’s come in: Comfortable, Controlled, Conversational.
Your easy pace should feel very comfortable and not stressful at all, these runs should not do any significant running related damage to your muscles and be thought of as active recovery. This means you are forcing fresh blood (and thus nutrients and oxygen) to your running muscles, helping the healing process and removing any metabolic byproducts from your last hard workout.
You should always feel in control of your run (take it easy going down hills!). You should be able to focus on your form during these runs, keeping your hips balanced and “stacked under your torso”¹, and running tall.
If you are running with a friend, make sure you can breathe well enough to convey a complete thought or sentence. This will keep the run at a conversational pace. If you’re by yourself, check in on your pace by singing a verse of your favorite song or reciting a quote from your favorite movie. Don’t worry about the strange looks you might get; it’s important to have fun while training!
The Run Sandwich
This great concept by coach Jason Fitzgerald at StrengthRunning sandwiches your runs with a warm-up and cool down routine. Before your run, use a dynamic warm-up to prime your muscles for work and raise your core temperature. Then after your run, cool-down with core and strength work, or optional static stretching.
It’s important to do dynamic stretching, not static, before a run. Static stretching does not actually warm up the body or running muscles. Also, if you think of your muscles as springs, static stretching takes them beyond their normal range of motion, loosening their spring-like nature. A loose spring is a far less efficient spring.
A dynamic warm up brings the working muscles through their full range of motion, while getting the body moving and blood flowing to the running muscles. Jason put together a great standard dynamic warm-up routine, which can be found at StrengthRunning.
Adding core and strength work to your running routine will help correct imbalances and develop the strength needed to correct weaknesses that come from sitting at a desk all day. It should also be noted that your core consists of not only your abdominal muscles, but also your hips, glutes, and back (you could also throw in the oft forgotten hamstrings).
Jason has a great interview with coach Jeff Gaudette from RunnersConnect, which discusses a lot of these issues and how to avoid and get out of the injury cycle.
Vary the Variables
The repetitive nature of running can lead to many overuse injuries such as IT band syndrome and plantar fasciitis. In an article about adding variations to your training, Jason explains that running the same route, at the same pace, in the same shoes every day increases the chance a runner will develop an overuse injury. This is because we apply the same stress on the same muscles/tendons/joints every day without letting them fully recover, leading to a breakdown.
Varying the route, terrain, pace, and rotating your shoes will not only help keep your training fresh and mentally stimulating, but could also be enough to avoid a repetitive stress injury and keep you on the roads. Personally, I have a rotation three to four pairs of shoes - one or two for easy runs, one all purpose, and one for speedwork and racing. Generally, two or three pairs of shoes will suffice for most runners.
As for my story, I think the stress reaction was a good thing. It forced me to research what happened, why it happened, and how I could avoid it recurring in the future. Changing up your workout routine by adding (even slight) variations to your running, a strength training routine, and proper progression in your training will provide a wide array of benefits that will help you stay healthy and active. Injury prevention is a vast subject, but these basics will help you keep doing what you love - running!
Dream big, work hard, train smart!
- David McHenry, physical therapist and strength coach for Alberto Salazar’s Nike Oregon Project, “It’s All In the Hips“