Remaining injury-free shouldn’t be rocket science, says Dr Jason Karp
Around 50% of runners deal with at least one injury a year, but there isn’t a good reason why this figure should be so high.
The main reason is that runners don’t train intelligently or they follow programmes that are not designed properly. Simply, injuries happen because the physical stress from running is too much for the body to handle at that time. The human body is great at adapting to stress, but only when you apply that stress in small doses. When you apply the stress too quickly for your body to adapt, something is inevitably going to break down.
Every time your foot strikes the ground, your leg absorbs two to three times your bodyweight. When you multiply that by the number of steps you take to run five miles, and multiply that by how many times you run each week, you can see how much stress your legs have to deal with simply to be a runner.
Predictors of injuries
The main reasons for running injuries are:
How many miles you run in a week is the greatest predictor of injury risk. It’s hard to say exactly how many miles per week adds to the risk of injury because that’s down to the individual. You may be able to handle 50 miles a week and your running partner may become injured with 30 miles. Some runners can run more than 100 miles per week and not be injured.
If you’ve had an injury in the past, you’re at an increased risk for another one. A previous injury can make that body part more vulnerable.
Lack of running experience
If you’re a new runner, you have a greater risk for injuries, as you’re not yet used to the stress of running.
If you want to stop becoming injured, follow these seven training secrets:
1. Train smart
Train at more effective levels of effort to get the best results. The goal of training is to obtain the greatest benefit while incurring the least amount of stress. That means you want to run as slow as you can while still obtaining the desired result. Follow a systematic and progressive training plan, with each cycle of training building on what came before to create a seamless and safe programme.
2. Increase your weekly mileage slowly
How quickly you increase your weekly mileage has probably the greatest impact on whether you get injured. The slower you increase your weekly mileage, the less chance you’ll get injured. When you increase your mileage, add only about a mile per day of running so that you spread the stress around. For example, if you run 20 miles over four days in a week, run no more than 24 miles the next week by adding one mile to each of the four days. Don’t run 24 miles next week by adding all four miles to only one single day of running.
Many books and articles quote the 10 per cent rule of increasing mileage, but there’s nothing special about that figure. You can often increase it by more than that if you’re smart about how you do it. If you’re a highly trained runner, you may be able to get away with adding more miles more quickly, especially if you have experience of running longer distances.
For example, if you’ve run 60 miles per week in the recent past and now you’re training for your fifth marathon and building up your mileage, you don’t necessarily have to go from 40 to 45 to 50 and then to 55 and 60 miles per week over a couple of months. You may be able to make bigger jumps in mileage because your legs already have experience of running 60 miles per week.
However, if 60 miles per week is totally new territory for you, then you need to increase your mileage in smaller increments. If you’re a new runner, an older runner or are prone to injury, run the same mileage for three to four weeks before attempting to increase it.
3. Don’t increase your mileage every week
Run the same mileage for two to four weeks before increasing it. Give your legs a chance to fully absorb and adapt to the workload. You want 30 miles per week to be a normal experience for your body before increasing it to 35 miles per week – it all takes time.
4. Don’t increase the distance of your long run every week
This is especially important if you’re entering unchartered territory with your long runs. Repeat the same long run for a few weeks before running longer. You want a nine-mile run to become normal before you try to run 10 miles. Most marathon and half-marathon training groups make the costly mistake of ramping up the long run much too quickly because their training programmes are only five to six months long. They increase the distance of the long run every week throughout their programmes until it’s time to taper two to three weeks before the race.
That’s a good way for new or recreational runners to become injured because of the stress increases week upon week without a break. If you’re running your first marathon or half-marathon and you’re starting from a short(ish) long run, you need to give yourself much longer than five or six months to prepare without increasing the risk of injury.
5. Don’t make the long run so long
To avoid injury, don’t make your long run such a large percentage of your weekly running. Ideally, your long run shouldn’t be more than about a third of your weekly mileage. If your long run is 10 miles, you should run at least 30 miles per week. If your long run is 20 miles, you should run at least 60 miles per week. The majority of runners don’t run that much, so you need to be creative when training so that you don’t accumulate so much stress in just one run.
The long run should be stressful. After all, you’re running for a long time and trying to make yourself exhausted so that your body adapts. However, you don’t want the long run to be so much more stressful than any other run during the week. It’s always better to spread the stress around. Complete a medium-long run in mid-week that is about 65-75 per cent of the length or duration of your long run.
6. Run easy on your easy days
The biggest mistake runners make is running too fast on their easy days. This adds unnecessary stress to the legs without any extra benefit and will make it more difficult to complete a quality run on your harder days. Easy runs should feel gentle and allow you to hold a conversation (about 70-75% max heart rate).
7. Never increase weekly mileage and intensity together
When you begin to include interval training and speed work into your programme, either reduce the overall mileage for the week or maintain your mileage from where it was before you added the extra intensity. Your legs can handle only so much stress at once. Most runners that try to increase their running volume while also increasing their intensity will find that is too much to handle.
» Dr Jason Karp holds a Ph.D. in exercise physiology and has written five books and has more than 200 published magazine articles. He is also a frequent speaker at coaching conferences