Injury is the great bane of any runner’s life. An injured runner tends to be moody, grumpy, and even depressed. Even the sight of others jogging along the road can be galling when you’re confined to the sidelines. Avoiding injuries is of the highest priority to any runner, serious and casual alike. So how does a runner prevent these forced periods of downtime?
There are many causes of injury, but the most universal and easiest to circumvent is the problem caused by speed – or more accurately, speed multiplied by distance. If you run too fast for too long, you WILL get injured. Fast running over short distances is fine, but as the length of the run increases, it’s vital to slow down. The trick is in knowing what average training speed your body can sustain for a given distance. Any time you increase the pace of your training, it’s crucial to monitor the potential onset of injury.
That doesn’t mean you should only ever run slowly. Variety is a key component of any running program, and the occasional sprint session or fast tempo run is a desirable thing. The important thing is, however, you should always balance your fast running by incorporating a correspondingly slower period of “recovery” both before and after such fast sessions.
This introduces the very closely related and equally crucial topic of rest. The training effect – the improvement in one’s general speed and endurance through training – relies crucially on two things; stressing the body followed by rest. Some runners – the naïve ones - seem to believe rest is a sign of weakness. Nothing is further from the truth.
Running itself results in all manner of micro-tears in the muscles and tendons. It can be easily argued that, after a run, your body is actually weaker than it was before the workout. It’s the ensuing period of rest that results in the body reacting to the stress and damage of the run by laying down new muscle fibres and blood vessels, making our bodies stronger and more capable of delivering oxygen to our muscles. Without adequate rest, the balance between damage and rejuvenation is skewed in favour of damage. The micro tears don’t have enough time to be repaired, leading to increased inflammation and eventual injury.
There are, of course, other causes of injury. Running on the same camber for extended periods will cause problems with your hips, knees, and ankles. Too many hills may also cause issues. A poor choice of shoes, or shoes that are badly worn in certain places, can add to the likelihood of injury.
But bad shoes simply exacerbate the underlying effects of running too fast for too long, without adequate recovery time. Speed without rest will lead to injury. Speed without rest in bad shoes will lead to injury even sooner.
Unfortunately, some people have biomechanical issues - for example, excessively flat feet, leading to poorly aligned knees – and these will greatly increase the likelihood of injury far above that of other runners. Such people need to consult a specialist, as slowing down and incorporating lots of rest may not even be enough to preclude injury.
Avoiding injury is simple in theory. Don’t run too fast for too long, and ensure adequate rest. And other causes of injury can usually be ameliorated to a large degree as well by employing this simple mantra. In practice, however, the difficulty lies in getting the balance right between intensity and recovery.
Every individual is unique. We each tolerate different levels of that stress-rest balance. If in doubt, slow down. Don’t wait until an injury is full-blown. It’s much more enjoyable to rest because it’s your choice, than to have rest forced upon you by injury.
Tom Denniss is an Australian athlete, scientist, and entrepreneur. He has a PhD in Mathematics and Oceanography, has invented a technology to convert the energy in ocean waves into electricity, founded a company to commercialise that technology, has played professional rugby league, and was a finalist in the 2014 Australian of the Year Award. In 2013 he set a new world record for the Fastest Circumnavigation of the Earth on Foot. Tom lives in Sydney, Australia. A former professional musician, he has played to audiences in eight countries. He has written various articles for newspapers, magazines, and journals, as well as a book about his run around the world, titled The World At My Feet. You can read more of Tom's work here.
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