Endurance running and overuse injury are two phrases that seem to appear in sentences together almost as frequently as “Tom Cruise” and “insane Scientologist.” And for good reason. Running might not be considered a contact sport, but it is definitely high impact and repetitive. Which means that endurance runners have to actively put effort into avoiding overuse injury if they don’t want to end up sidelined.
Over the last decade, I’ve learned that there are a few tried and true methods that can help athletes avoid things like muscle strains, ligament tears, and the dreaded stress fracture. Using these techniques has helped me to avoid overuse injury, despite some very high mileage training. Here’s my top strategies for avoiding overuse injury, while still running all the miles.
Avoiding Overuse Injury
- Increase Gradually – You start your new running routine, get over that “everything hurts” hump, and suddenly things are feeling good. You actually look forward to getting out the door! And suddenly those race distances don’t sound completely impossible. It’s easy to want to jump right into the next longest distance, and see what you’re really capable of. And I’m definitely not one to tell anyone not to run long distances, but I will say that you need to give your body time to adjust. You don’t have to follow a training plan strictly, but I would consult one or two just to make sure you aren’t ramping up too fast. Got questions on what “too fast” means, reach out via my Contact Me page!
- Spread the Miles Out – When it comes to big weeks, I’ve learned a few things over the years. The Hansons Marathon Method showed me just how effective and powerful it can be to spread the miles out evenly throughout the week. If you give your body time to build slowly, you can run all of the miles. Just don’t run all of the miles in one day. A good rule of thumb is to try to keep your weekly long runs somewhere around 25%-30% of your overall weekly volume. Want to run longer distances on the weekend? Try to make sure you’re squeezing in some extra miles during the week, too.
- Eat. Like a Horse. – Know what happens when a horse gets injured? They take the long trail ride to horse heaven. Which is why you’ll never see a horse turn down an apple. Much like sleep, your body just can’t recover if it is in a constant state of depletion. Chronic dieting and under-fueling have serious consequences for athletes who are asking their body’s to work hard. Not only are you more likely to be cranky (a real issue for me when I’m hungry), you’re also at an increased risk for stress fractures, ligament strains, and RED-S; a particularly concerning syndrome involving over-training and under-fueling that has some serious consequences.
- Sleep. Like the Dead. – This is one strategy that most moms, myself included, aren’t great at. There’s only a few precious “free” hours in the week, and who wants to waste them sleeping? Someone who doesn’t want tendonitis! Sleep deprivation can wreak havoc on your body’s ability to recover between workouts, which leaves you at a much greater risk for overuse injury. So grab a melatonin, invest in those good sheets, and put the iPhone away. Your social life might suffer a little, but your knees sure won’t.
- Mix Up Surfaces – Roads are great for speed work and helping your body adapt for road races, but they aren’t exactly easy on the joints. Trails are usually softer and kinder to the knees and ankles, but miles of climbing and jumping can be brutal on the muscles. To keep things balanced, I recommend variety. Mix things up so that when your muscles are sore from jumping over tree roots, you head to the roads and vice versa.
- Warm Up & Cool Down – For years I used to think that the first couple of minutes of my run were good enough to serve as a warm up. And after years of waking up sore, I started to notice that my race performances weren’t improving. So, I started doing a quick 5 minute dynamic warm-up before every run, and immediately noticed a huge difference. My body felt happy, and I was able to run paces I wasn’t hitting before. Spending a few minutes getting my hips warmed up, and my glutes firing improved my form and speed dramatically. Incorporating a cool down with some static stretching helped prevent immobility; which can lead to poor running form and injury. It’s not easy to “find the time,” but if you skip warming up and cooling down, you’re likely to find yourself spending time in a PT office rather than running.
- Run Easy – So many runners run exactly two paces; race pace and just a little slower than race pace. Conventional wisdom leads a lot of people to believe that if you want to get faster, you have to run faster. All the time. And this couldn’t be further from the truth. In order to get the most out of speed workouts, your body needs easy runs to be truly easy. Spending too much time in one gear can wear down muscles at an accelerated rate, and honestly it usually results in plateaued performances. So run 70%-75% of your runs at a pace where you can carry a conversation. This will help you run faster in those workouts, and keep you from falling apart before race day.
- Don’t Neglect Strength Training – You may not need to pump the iron like a body builder or strong man competitor, but don’t be fooled into thinking that running in and of itself is enough to keep you strong. Running is a high impact sport, and if you don’t develop enough muscle tissue to support the activity, your form will suffer and your body will eventually break down. Does this mean you need to spend hours at the gym? No, 30 minutes 3-4 times a week is plenty. Focus on your core, hamstrings, quads, glutes, and arms (yes, you use your arms when you run!). Even focused body-weight exercises can give you enough strength gains to keep you injury-free. Need a few ideas? Head over to my Workouts page.
- Don’t Ignore Pain – Even if you follow every sage piece of wisdom found here, you’re still likely to over do it once or twice. An unexpected twisted ankle, a cranky foot, a swollen knee; these are all things that should never be ignored. Soreness is one thing, but isolated pain or tenderness is a whole different story. And if you want to have a long relationship with running, you need to listen to those little pains and take it easy. Otherwise, they’re likely to become big pains. If you’re having trouble deciphering injury from soreness, do the walk test. Walk or very slowly jog for about a quarter of a mile. Most soreness will either start to loosen up, or at least not become more painful. A possible budding injury is more likely to start to feel worse with exercise. As hard as it can be to skip a workout, not listening could mean weeks of recovery down the road.
- Massage – THE ONE PIECE OF ADVICE THAT NO ONE ARGUES WITH. Go get a massage once or twice a month. It helps move the lactic acid around, increases muscle mobility, and helps improve sleep. Plus, who doesn’t love a freaking massage? I’m not going to waste time trying to convince you; just know that it’s money well spent.
- Bonus: Recover Like a Champ – Here’s where you can start to build a small arsenal of home recovery gear. Things like a massage gun, gua shua tool, foam roller, and lacrosse ball can all help you speed up muscle recovery at home. Having these kinds of recovery tools in easy reach makes it more likely that you will actually use them. And if you have a little extra room in your budget, consider things like chiropractic care, normatec boots, and even a good pair of compression socks. These aren’t game-changing cure-alls, but if they’re good enough for Des, they’re good enough for me!
Running is a sport that can add so much to your life. It’s a stress-reliever, time alone, and a great way to stay physically healthy. But running all the miles without taking care of your body is the behavior of a sadist. Much like karma, it will always catch up to you and knock you firmly on your butt at the most inconvenient time. So make sure that you’re incorporating these strategies somewhat regularly (no one is perfect, we’re not taco’s after all), and