What’s the most dreaded word in running? No, it’s not poop (although that’s pretty bad). It’s injury. And, boy, am I familiar with that word!
I have had at least 3 stress fractures, 1 year long injury and countless other little niggles that have kept me off my feet for a few days to a few weeks over the past 20 years. At the beginning my injuries were mostly caused by low bone density, now they result more often than not from non-running klutzniess and stupid choices (e.g. mowing the lawn during peak training week). But as good as I am at getting injured, I am even better at getting healthy again. I have broken my foot 7.5 weeks before a marathon and showed up healed, healthy and fit on race morning. I have also, perhaps more importantly, NOT gotten injured countless times just by employing some preventative measures and using some common sense.
Over the course of the next few posts I am going to write about the methods I have learned for avoiding injury, healing from injury and staying fit throughout the course of an injury. I promise that I won’t tell you all the same old boring stuff you have read before, and I won’t ask you to add a gazillion prehab and rehab injuries to your training routine.
Our first topic: Injury Prevention!
Alrighty then, let’s talk about the always-scintillating topic of injury prevention. Okay, maybe its not scintillating, but think about it … wouldn’t it be amazing if we could all avoid injury altogether? Hammer day after day, week after week and never get sidelined by plantar fasciitis, a stress fracture or IT band problems? It would be runner nirvana! Well, here’s the thing: while I certainly can’t completely eliminate injuries from our running experience, I can tell you that there are a few things you can do that can significantly reduce your risk of injury. All this requires of you, dear runner, is an ability to tune in to your body during and after your runs, a willingness to be a little more flexible in your training plans and a commitment to add a small amount of supplementary exercise into your training repertoire. Let’s get right to it!
Saffron’s Injury Prevention Rule #1: The Test Run
So, let’s say you get a niggle. You know about niggles, right? You go for a run and for no apparent reason your hip feels a little bit sore. Or your IT band is tight. Or you get done with a run and your calf tightens right up and you can’t get it to loosen up. The first thing to do when you get a niggle is to take a deep breath. Do not freak out and decide to pop 4 advil to mask the pain and keep up with your training schedule. Instead, I recommend that you just do one simple thing: change the focus of your next run and see it not as a regular training run but as a test run.
The goal of this run is to pay close attention to your niggle. If the pain doesn’t subside or (gasp!) gets worse with running, and especially if it causes you to alter your gait during the test run then the next step is to take an unscheduled rest day. It won’t kill you, I promise! This month alone I took 2 unscheduled rest days two weeks in a row and I lived to write about it. Don’t let me lead you to believe that doing so wasn’t hard … it was! I missed a key track workout in my prep for fall racing. But I had triggered some nerve and tendon inflammation in my peroneals and my IT band and, upon reflection, I decided that I was more interested in my fall racing schedule than in my stubborn, distance-runner-obsessive urge to complete said track workout.
A short break from running at the very outset of a potential injury is oftentimes enough to short circuit the problem and get you back on track, injury-free. Yes, this is hard to do in the moment, but I promise you, 2 days (or a week even) is much, much better than 4 to 6 (or more) weeks off because of a full-blown injury.
Saffron’s Injury Prevention Rule #2: Don’t Ignore Your Core!
Do proper core work, every week. All of your running stability (and hence, your injury prevention) begins in your core – the muscles of the front and sides of your abdomen, you pelvic floor and your back. If you have a weak core you are much more likely to get injured. Because of this it is a major investment in your injury prevention to add 30 minutes or so of effective core work to your training repertoire at least twice a week. If your schedule is packed then I would suggest you actually replace some of your easy running time with the core work. It is that important.
Notice that I said “effective core work” and “proper core work” above. I am sorry to say that good old-fashioned sit ups and crunches do not translate into a strong runner’s core. Planks, side planks, push ups, hamstring bridges and curls…all those count as effective core work. Do them properly. Watch a video detailing proper form and then do your core work in front of a mirror or with a friend watching you to make sure you are doing the exercises properly. Here’s a link to a fantastic suite of core exercises aptly named the Dirty Dozen.
Saffron’s Injury Prevention Rule #3: Analyze Your Form
Find out if you have any quirks in your gait or strength imbalances. This is, admittedly, an investment of both time and finances, but I would argue that it is as important to your running success as the running shoes you strap on your feet every day. Find a trustworthy physical therapist, running-specific sports chiro or a good coach and have them watch you run (and hopefully video you running) and squat. From these two tests they can diagnose pretty much every imbalance that may affect your gait, create negative compensatory patterns (that’s code for “run funny in ways that are going to eventually lead to injury”) and, yes, eventually lead to you developing an overuse injury.
Saffron’s Injury Prevention Rule #4: Fix Your Body’s Weak Spots
Obviously, the next step is to correct these gait and strength imbalances. This is generally a much easier process than it sounds; often it can just mean doing proper stretching or strengthening drills to reeducate your movement patterns. It can take a month or more of doing those stretching and strengthening exercises to get the imbalances corrected, but the patience and diligence is worth it over the long haul.
The bottom line is that preventative maintenance (core strength and removal of imbalances) + proactive management of the small issues = significantly fewer injuries overall.
Got any questions about injury prevention? Any tips I missed?
*This is the part of the post where I have to include a disclaimer. I am not a doctor nor am I a physical therapist. I am, however, a total klutz who is great at getting injured, a pro at getting healed, a USATF Level 1 certified coach and a lapsed certified personal trainer. So while my recovery secrets are not rooted in medicine they have been tested and refined and retested multiple times on me by me and are rooted in my education as well as in good, old-fashioned common sense.*