GB runner Alex Teuten gives his thoughts – and those of fellow athletes – on staying injury-free
Injury prevention is a mainstay topic at any level in athletics. Without doubt, every athlete at some point will have had to take time off to recover from an injury and it can be hugely frustrating, especially when preparing for a race.
There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to injury prevention; it is for an athlete to discover what works for them. We all differ physiologically, with stronger and weaker parts, and this reflects in the diversity of injuries athletes present with.
From experience, injuries rarely come unannounced; more often it’s the accumulation of several days and weeks of poor maintenance, coupled with an intensive training programme.
Niggles and pains are frequent but it is important that they are addressed punctually (through stretching and applying ice to the affected area) before they worsen. Injury prevention is about the little things and so here are a few tips I have.
» Shoes: Make sure they are within their recommended mileage (ask if unsure) otherwise they lose their cushioning ability. Try to keep to a similar shoe where possible and always test a new pair in a shop before buying them.
» Core and strength routines: I have one for each which I complete three times and once per week respectively. My core routine involves exercises such as plank, side plank etc. My strength work is carried out a couple of days from any sessions, to allow the soreness to subside. Weights such as bench press, squats and deadlifts feature in my routine, as well as pull-ups, calf raises and weighted step-ups. Good technique is crucial; poor form can cause injuries rather than prevent them!
» Personal health is really important: Good nutrition and sufficient sleep are probably the most overlooked factors in injury prevention! Athletes often require more sleep than most, as we demand more of our bodies. I aim for 8.5 hours of sleep per night.
With regards to diet, a lot of it is personal but I would always recommend eating a high protein/carb snack promptly after a session or long run. Research has shown that consuming nutrition containing a 4:1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein within 30 minutes has a number of benefits to recovery, including improved water re-uptake, muscle repair, muscle glycogen replenishment (which is a key energy source for athletes) and immune system activation.
Nutrition can either be in food form, or a recovery shake (or chocolate milk in my case, which by coincidence fits the criteria very well!). Don’t forget fluids as well. Other than those, just ensure you’re getting what you need in your diet and take care not to neglect the micronutrients!
» Massage: While there is little or no scientific evidence that massage can prevent or reduce risk of injury to athletes or enhance performance, it has been shown to reduce fatigue and accelerate recovery in some studies. I find it relaxes the muscles and helps them fire as they should and therefore I would recommend having one every two weeks or so.
I am lucky to have had very few serious injuries in my 18 years of athletics. There must be a reason behind that, though, and the work of my strength coach and massage therapists warrants a kind word of thanks. I consider consistency my biggest strength in the sport and being able to build fitness without interruptions culminated in my GB call-up last year. Hence why I put such an emphasis on this subject!
As part of this article, I have consulted a number of international, elite athletes within the UK and Ireland to discover how others go about staying fit and healthy. Their responses have been really insightful and highlight just what I was saying about it being a personal task. The table below shows the mileages these athletes clock up and paces (which are both considered to be hot topics in injury prevention).
I also asked them what advice they could give to stay fit, which they were more than happy to provide details.
Mahamed Mahamed does what many would consider a modest weekly mileage, but strongly believes it’s his optimum. It enabled him to compete frequently to a very high level during the winter; testimony to this was him winning the BUCS indoor 3000m (with heats and final) just three days after finishing an impressive 10th in a star-studded Armagh 5km in 14:07.
He says: “For me, a big part of injury prevention is resting. I have two days off a week! I’m lucky to have great facilities at Southampton Solent University, including an anti-gravity treadmill. It reduces the weight of impact and puts less load through the legs, which reduces the risk of stress fractures etc. I’d highly recommend it!”
Mahamed has recently introduced a core routine into his programme and says he’s feeling the benefits. He completes many of his runs on grass, saying: “It feels nicer on the joints.”
Luke Traynor, along with Ben Connor, targeted the World Half-Marathon Champs for GB earlier this year to great success, both breaking 62 minutes at the Barcelona Half-marathon with the latter ranking No.8 on the all-time UK list.
Luke says: “One of the bigger changes I have made is that I put no pressure on myself to complete individual runs. If I’m sore I’ll go slower or cut the run completely.”
He echoes my thoughts on regularly changing shoes and seeking massage and physio (which he has at Glasgow City Physiotherapy), using them more for prevention rather than treatment of injuries. He encourages athletes to “listen to their body and think of your training on a grander scale rather than just getting to the next race”, adding that training should be progressive year-on-year.
Ben also encourages athletes to run by feel. He does a specific gym routine twice per week, focusing on any weak areas he has. He says: “I would definitely advise having a gym routine designed specifically for you. Don’t just copy other people’s.”
Gemma is also a strong advocate for a good core routine for injury prevention and she has corrected Achilles problems with orthotics. In addition she strongly recommends seeing the same massage therapist (for her it is Andy Toal in Whitwick) so that they can build up familiarity of your body and what therapy is required.
As a final tip, she says: “Drinking my Forever Living Aloe Vera ‘Freedom’ gel and taking cod liver oil tablets play a big part [in injury prevention] too for keeping my joints and muscles supple.”
Gemma has added consistency to her racing under her new programme, which she thinks is key for her to match and even beat previous outstanding performances like her 68:13 half-marathon (placing her third on the all-time rankings) in 2014.
Faye Fullerton was also selected for the World Half this year (which she admits was a surprise), but not before challenging for a medal at the British indoor track champs (3000m) barely a month earlier. To be able to combine both is tricky and requires some intelligent training owing to utilising such diverse energy systems.
Faye completes three sessions per week (in contrast to many like myself who normally only do two) and so her weekly mileage has a high proportion at high intensity. She advocates this by avoiding “junk miles” (a term some athletes use to describe very easy running) and resting the day before a race instead of opting for a “shakeout run” some athletes do. This high intensity program equips her suitably from 800m to half-marathon and everything in-between!
Faye impressed as a youngster but then acquired a stress fracture at 17, which she attributes to over racing, often running three events per day in the National Junior League. She’s confident that physical tiredness leads to injury and so takes time off whenever she feels strained and pays close attention to tight muscles. Soft tissue injuries that followed led her to take more than two years off racing to fully recover but she has risen back to the pinnacle of the sport, which proves that it is possible.
Adam Kirk-Smith competed at the Commonwealth Games where he was a superb eighth in the 3000m steeplechase. His stretching, conditioning and strengthening routine to develop suppleness and flexibility as part of this discipline has been key to his longevity (when he doesn’t crash into the barriers).
Adam encourages athletes not just to think about what they do in their training, but why they do it, arguing that the latter is even more important. As he aptly puts it: “There’s no point going a minute faster per mile on a run the day before hard training on the track.”
He reminds athletes that a “personal best” is a freeze-frame in time and that these performances are achieved as a result of hard, consistent training, normally towards the end of a season. Hence, by expecting to pick up where one left off can often be a setup to disappointment, leading to knee-jerk decisions and injury.
Finally, he echoes my previous article in saying “sustained success at any level is far more difficult without a sense of enjoyment and some fun in what we do”–and he encourages training with a group, with the quip that “it might be an individual sport, but that doesn’t mean you have to do it alone”.
The most significant point here is that in elite-level athletics, as is the same across all abilities, there isn’t a training programme that would work for everyone. It takes time to perfect. That said, one shouldn’t jump into something completely different because someone else advocates it.
Find aspects that work and stick with them. There are a lot of little things that can be introduced here and I would encourage experimenting with them.
» Alex Teuten was part of Britain’s bronze medal-winning men’s team at the Euro Cross in 2017, won last year’s BUCS cross-country title and blogs at alexteuten.wordpress.com
» The above article first appeared in the May 17 issue of AW