Frustration because you can’t train the way you want to, with injuries and niggles limiting your ability to train consistently. It feels like your body can’t do what you want it to be able to do, no matter how much your mind is willing it on.
Injuries can be the biggest frustration because ultimately it’s taking away your ability to do what you want to do. It limits your freedom and takes away the joy of running and the feeling of vitality it provides.
In this article I’m going to help solve your problems with a list of 6 simple steps you can take to begin building the habits that will reduce the risk of injury as a runner.
1) Have a plan
This seems like an obvious point, but how often do you write down a plan and stick to it with consistency? One of the biggest injury risk factors in runners is sudden spikes in training load, which are more likely if you haven’t structured your training in a logical manner. Do you have weekly and monthly volume targets you’re sticking to?
If not, then the likelihood of picking up niggles increases, as our bodies can only adapt to the stimulus you provide it with. If you’ve not given it a foundation of running volume, then any spikes in load are going to cause greater challenges for you.
Even if you do have a structured plan which has been provided for you by a coach, deviations from the plan are likely to cause problems. Ensure that the easy days are easy, and that the hard days are hard. It can be tempting to add more volume, run for longer, or run faster when you are feeling good but long term consistency is the foundation upon which all great programmes are built.
2) Gradually increase training volume
Once you have a plan, ensure that increases in volume are gradual. The acute:chronic training load parameter is a measure of how much load you are experiencing per week (acute) and per month (chronic). If the acute load you are experiencing suddenly increases, then it is not aligned with our chronic training measures, and the risk of injury goes up.
Equally, a gradual increase in loading from block to block (month to month) is important so that you accumulate volume at a rate that is appropriate for our capabilities. A general rule of thumb would be that a 10% increase in weekly or monthly running volume is appropriate, but of course this can be higher in those with a longer training history.
3) Increase your mobility
Mobility at your joints enables appropriate ranges of motion to be achieved during running, which means you don’t put undue stress on passive structures. An example could be at the ankle, where if you lack dorsiflexion range (toes to shin), then you may well rely on inversion (rolling) at the ankle in order to achieve range. Passive structures in the foot and ankle are then put under greater stress (as stress is force divided by cross sectional area), and they may get injured if this happens over a prolonged period.
Another example is at the big toe, where limited range puts greater stress through the ankle joint. Normally you should be able to rock through the big toe during running stance without any issues, but when range is limited there is more force experienced over a smaller cross-sectional area and thus the stress on tissues increases.
Regular mobility exercises is one effective way to develop good ranges of motion, but this is something that again needs consistency. Mobility is one of those physical qualities that can take a little while to improve, but it is so valuable once achieved. Focus on the foot and ankle including the big toe, your hips, and thoracic spine. You can supplement this with soft tissue work as well, to keep on top of any tightness that may be limiting you.
4) Look after your tendons
Tendons are heavily affected by mechanical loading, and need this in order to adapt and become stronger. Mechanobiology describes how a certain amount of strain (deformation caused by stress) in the tendon is necessary to drive adaptation at a tissue level, whereas a lack of or excessive strain leads to maladaptive response. In simple terms, this means that loading the tendons in an optimal manner is important to drive adaptation and prevent load related injury.
In line with the previous points in this article, consistency and having a plan are a solid way to ensure that the tendons are loaded to a point that they can handle without being excessive.
Along with gradual running volume increases, loading the tendons with strength exercises is a great way to increase their stiffness which can not only reduce injury risk but also contribute to running performance.
5) Strength training
Following on from the previous point, strength training is one of the most effective means of increasing our body’s capabilities and robustness to load. It has been found to reduce injury risk, as well as support running performance through increase running economy and muscle power.
Given the points made already in this article, you should be able to see the link now between loading, planning and response in the body. It’s a lot like the goldilocks principle – not too little, not too much, just right.
Strength training increases the tolerance of your tissues to loading, which means that they can withstand more load without breaking down. This could mean more running volume, or the same volume but at higher running speeds, for example.
In a recent article I went into more detail around this topic, highlighting its significance in running performance and how to structure it as a runner. Read it here: Strength Training for Runners.
6) Be specific with your exercises
Running provides specific demands on the body, which need to be addressed if you are to fully prepare for the demands of the sport. For example, it is known that the body can experience up to 8 times bodyweight of force during stance, which is a significant demand on our tissues.
With this in mind, an effective strength training programme should target the key areas of the body that are commonly injured which includes the ankle, hamstring, knee and hips. We also need to strength train the muscle groups which contribute most to running propulsion and experience the greatest demand which includes the soleus, glute medius and quadriceps.
Training programmes which are general in nature (i.e. don’t address the key demands of running) are fine to an extent, but won’t fully prepare the body for the loading experienced in the sport. Specific exercises address these problems, and provide solutions to the load related injuries commonly experienced.
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