In order to improve and stay motivated as a runner, being able to consistently train without injury is paramount. I don’t think there is a single answer on how to avoid injury since everyone’s body is different, but there are many things within our control that we can do to increase our odds of staying healthy. I personally believe that you need to take a holistic view and not rely on a single antidote in order to find that balance between pushing the body to new performance levels without the body beginning to break down.
It has been well over a year and a half and five marathons since I’ve had an injury that prevented me running. This ability to train consistently has contributed to steady improvements in my race times. Sure, there have been small aches and pains, but those tended to be minor irritants than anything chronic and never lasted more than a few days. I don’t claim to have the magic formula, but here are some things that I believe have helped me avoid any significant injury.
1. I only run three times a week (FIRST training program) and never on back to back days. This allows at least one or two full days between runs to recover. Whether we want to admit it or not, running is probably one of the most impactful exercises on our tendons and joints and we need time recover in order to avoid overstressing the body. I used to run 5 to 7 days a week and never seemed to be 100% during a run, there was always nagging pains that either never went away or even got worse to a point where I would have to take some time off. And the funny thing is, when I went to running only 3 days a week, my running times improved, as long as the days you do run are of high quality. When I was running 5 to 7 days a week, I was logging 50 – 60 miles a week, but most of it was not quality miles. Today I run 30 – 40 miles per week, but each mile I run has a purpose.
2. Changing to a mid-foot/forefoot runner instead of landing on my heals undoubtedly has helped reduce injuries to the knees and hips. I used to constantly have pains come and go in these areas, but after changing the way I landed, those pains almost disappeared overnight. But changing to a forefoot runner took time and patience since it didn’t feel natural at first. In addition, it also brought a new set of injuries to my calves and achilles tendon since I hadn’t built up this part of the leg muscles. But over a few months, the forefoot running became natural, the calves and achilles got much stronger, and as a result, it took my running to a higher level. When I first started forefoot running, I ran in Nike Frees, which were okay, but didn’t seem to fit my foot correctly. I also experimented with Vibram Five Fingers and did not have any luck with them, they tended to overstress the achilles tendon, especially when it came to hill training. About a year ago I switched to Newton Gravity and have found them to be the best forefoot running shoe on the market so far.
3. Strengthening the core muscles of the body contributes to better running form and as a result fewer injuries. Having a solid core keeps the back straight and body aligned throughout a run. Since March I’ve been exclusively doing kettlebell exercises using the KettleWorX program with great results. The time commitment is about 30 minutes three times a week, but you get a fairly intense full body workout.
4. After my kettlebell strength training routine, I do about 20 – 25 minutes of yoga three times a week. This helps with flexibility and balance. There are a couple routines for runners I found on iTunes that I alternate between. This is an area I can probably improve in, my flexibility is pretty pathetic. Also, I don’t do a lot of stretching before or after a run, mainly because of time, but I know the limited amount of yoga I do each week is helpful. I also do a short 5 to 10 minute stretching routine every night before going to bed.
5. I am beginning to do more cross training such as cycling. This also seems to be helpful in injury avoidance since it develops other muscles in the legs, which provides more balance and reduces overstress in the running muscles. Cross-training also has the ability to improve your aerobic capacity without adding the the extra pounding to the joints.
6. As I posted a few days ago, adequate sleep goes a long way in speeding recovery. I notice the better I sleep, the better the body feels since our natural healing mechanisms were able to do their job.
7. Eating right and correct nutrition ensures the body is getting the proper nutrients to build and repair the body. This is another area I’m looking to improve upon this training cycle since I know there are consequences when we compromise in this area. Malnourished athletes are susceptible to a host of injuries (weak bones, immune system, fatigue, lack of focus, etc.) because they don’t provide the body the right building blocks to keep the body strong.
Again, I don’t claim to know what works for everyone, but the tips above are what I believe have helped me personally avoid any major injuries for some time. But I do believe you need to take a holistic approach to avoiding injury, although the list of injury prevention measures may differ from individual to individual.