This article is based on my personal experience as a runner who has learnt the hard way, as well as the way I work with runners from a professional view point too.
Not resting after 6 long months of marathon training and a race that could not have gone any better, is the worst mistake I have made as a runner. I did all of the other things right and had the most amazing day, but didn’t factor in the rest and recovery bit, and got injured not long afterwards. After my recovery and rehabilitation, I then forgot about everything I had done right in my previous training and entered a horrible cycle of injury after injury.
I did eventually work it out, but it took a long time to get back to enjoying my running again, so I am offering my knowledge and experience to you, in the hope that you will learn something from my mistakes and continue to enjoy your running.
I firmly believe that injury prevention is relevant for new, returning or experienced runners. Physiologically it doesn’t really matter into which category you fall as I largely apply the same therapy and coaching methods to each, however, the mindset and circumstances of each is often very different, so it can sometimes be useful to distinguish between them.
This might seem self explanatory, but I do want to clarify that a new runner is someone new to run training, regardless of any other sport they may currently do, as well as someone completely new to exercise. This is very important as the biomechanics of running are very different to other sports, such as cycling, swimming and football.
There may be a number of different reasons why someone has not been running either at all or consistently for a number of months or even years, such as injury, illness, lifestyle or a global pandemic! The important bit to recognise here is inconsistency, as people often don’t categorise themselves as ‘returning’ if they have done the odd run once a week or so over a number of months or years. You’ve not technically stopped running, but if you were to suddenly return to 3-4 relatively intense sessions a week, your body will find it hard to fully adapt.
I am making a point of this one because people often think of an experienced runner as a ‘fast(er)’ runner or someone who knows a lot about running. For the purposes of injury prevention, my definition of an experienced runner is one that has been running consistently for 6 months to a year (depending on previous experience) and is comfortably running 3-4 times a week, regardless of pace or distance. You could argue that this is a conditioned rather than experienced runner, but there are a lot of runners in this category who, in my opinion, would benefit from some run specific conditioning sessions too!
So, onto the most important injury prevention measure for runners….
There is a lot involved with running that many people don’t appreciate when they first start; this is not in any way intended to put you off, more provide you with useful information to think about as you start, continue and progress with your running.
Running is hard work, so you need to allow your body time to adapt to what you’re asking it to do. If you like analogies, think of running like decorating, DIY or building a house, depending on your goals!
Make a decision to start and be realistic with what you want to achieve
Set yourself a goal. You have probably heard of SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable/Achievable, Relevant/Realistic, Time-bound/Timescale), which is a really good place to start, but sometimes it doesn’t always need to be so defined or time-bound. In fact, unless you have a race goal, keeping the timeframe fluid is more realistic when building your base fitness (I come onto this further down).
If you are new to running, set yourself some progressive goals, such as 5k, then 10k, then 10 mile, then half marathon. There is then a big jump from half marathon to full marathon, so make sure you fully understand the training and distance commitments before signing up to a full marathon.
Get the equipment you need
I have heard so many times times that running is really cheap and easy to get going with because you just need a pair of trainers. Now, I don’t know where you live, but I haven’t seen anyone running without any clothes on!
This is of course not what people mean, but it is assumed that you will have some kind of suitable clothing to go running in. You don’t have to buy all the latest running kit, but choosing appropriate clothing is highly recommended.
When first starting out, think about:
- Shorts or leggings that are not cotton
- A vest or t-shirt that is not cotton
- A suitable sports bra (if you need one)
- A good pair of running trainers
If you like running and want to continue, think about:
- Run specific socks
- More non cotton clothing
- A device that records your runs
- A heart rate monitor to measure your efforts
- A running belt for your phone/keys and/or pockets in your shorts/leggings
- A foam roller
If you still like running and want to run in all weathers and longer distances, think about:
- Lots more non cotton clothing, socks and underwear
- Sunglasses you can run in
- Peaked cap/visor (this can be used for rain and sun)
- Long running tights/leggings
- Base layers/long sleeved t-shirts
- Gloves, ear warmers and arm warmers
- Waterproof jacket
- High visibility jackets and/or garments
- Head torch
- Hydration belt/pack for fluids and nutrition
- Lots of additional pairs of trainers (sort of joke!)
- The latest watch(es)
- Training software
There are endless other things you can look into, but the point is that running does need a bit more preparation (and money) than is sometimes first thought.
Set aside time/clear some space (in your diary)
And be realistic with the time you have. A 30 minute run should take at least an hour by the time you have warmed up, run, stretched, refuelled and (hopefully) showered. I usually allow an extra hour on top of my session time, plus any travel time if I am doing a club run, meeting others and/or doing a session in the gym.
If I am short on time, I will reduce or adapt my session to allow time for a proper warm up, stretching, refuelling and showering.
Consider asking for help
This can take many forms from joining your local running club, running with friends or more professional support. Running coaches, personal trainers and the different kinds of sports therapists are all available to help make you be a better runner, not just to ‘fix’ you when you are injured!
You don’t need to see a coach, trainer or therapist who is a runner – sometimes it adds an extra level of empathy and passion if that is important to you, but generally, you want to find someone who understands you and who helps you to achieve your goals.
Although someone doesn’t need to be a runner themselves to help you be a better runner, they do need to understand the principles of running and look at your body as a whole, rather than just your feet and/or your legs.
This is particularly important when choosing the right footwear and what level of stability you may (or probably don’t) need. In the vast majority of cases, extra stability is suggested in footwear to compensate for weaknesses elsewhere, without the appropriate advice on the latter part.
There will be an article to follow on this, but in the meantime, if you need additional stability in your footwear then do so in the short term whilst addressing the weaknesses in the longer term.
Form a solid base onto which you can build
In terms of the running itself, this is the first and, by far, the most important point, yet one that is massively overlooked. If you do nothing else with this article except develop a solid phase of base training, then the rest will probably work itself out over time. So what is base training?
Base training will differ for everyone depending on their running history, but generally speaking, it is a (minimum) period of two months where you consistently and slowly build your mileage each week up to 10 miles, or 90-100 minutes (whichever comes first) with easy and long runs.
That’s it. No interval training, no hill reps. Just your body getting used to running and adapting.
Now, this is not to say you shouldn’t include hills on your easy or long runs, they will actually help build your fitness, what I mean is no specific hill training sessions.
If you still want be involved with your running club sessions that are advertised as interval sessions, speak to your club and ask if it’s okay for you to adapt the way you do that particular session. The beauty of interval training is that it is almost always done in loops so you are never more than 400m or so away from anyone and/or the start and by the time everyone has done a few loops, no-one really knows who has done/is doing what anyway!
So, instead of running the loop/distance hard with a recovery, run the whole session at a continuous and steady pace. Let the run leader know what you’re doing so they are aware and you might even have people join you if they too are not up for intervals that day.
Or, if you or your club are not comfortable with this arrangement, organise a separate run with other members of your club that would like to do a steady run that day instead of intervals.
Allow sufficient time before progressing
Whether you are in the base fitness phase or building the mileage for a marathon, always allow your body time to adapt before progressing to the next part of your training. This is commonly done with drop back weeks, which work on 3-4 weekly cycles. So, for example, your weekly mileage increases from 15 to 18 to 21 to 24 miles over 4 weeks and on the fifth week, you drop your weekly mileage back to 15 miles.
This allows your body time to adapt to the previous weeks’ progressions before then continuing in the sixth week. Depending on your fitness, in week six you can either repeat the fourth week (24 weekly mileage in my example) or progress to 27 miles.
The thing to remember with drop back weeks (and tapering if this is relevant to you), is that your pace remains the same as previous weeks, and you simply reduce the overall time, distance, reps or sets.
If you do nothing else with this article except develop a solid phase of base training, then the rest will probably work itself out over time.
Spend time on the little things that you think don’t matter
In the DIY/decorating analogy, if you cut corners, things either don’t fit together properly, or they fall apart and/or you have to start again or go back a few steps. It’s the same with running. The majority of your training should be running, that is how you become better at running, but remember to include time for strength and conditioning (S&C), resting, recovering and ensuring your are ultimately engaging the right muscles at the right time to help prevent overuse or imbalance that can lead to injuries.
There will be an article to follow about how and when to include S&C in your training plan, but for now, if you think you don’t have time to do S&C, try this little exercise:
- Put your hand up if you have ever been injured (you don’t have to actually raise your hand, but go with me)
- Put your hand down if you currently do at least 60 minutes (either continuous or over a number of different sessions) of S&C a week
- Put your hand back up if you’re not sure what the conditioning part means
- Keep your hand up if you followed a rehab plan when you were injured
- Keep your hand up if this rehab plan helped you become injury free
If you still have you hand in the air, then you have already proved that you found the time to include conditioning work when you were injured.
The principle is exactly the same to prevent injury, so why not find that time again now rather than waiting until you are injured again?
Celebrate and enjoy the time and effort you have put in
A celebration is whatever you want it to be. This can be in the form of enjoying running those 10 miles at the end of your base fitness phase effortlessly, or doing a 5k time trial to set yourself a baseline, or a race you have spent months training for. Whatever it is, enjoy it and allow yourself time to realise what you have achieved because, like I said at the beginning – running is hard and you have earned your celebration!
Have a rest before moving onto the next project!
This, along with base fitness, is what a lot of people forget to do. After the high of completing your A race, you are on cloud nine. You feel you can achieve anything, and you can if you want to, just not immediately afterwards. Or within the next few weeks!
Plan your recovery in the same way that you would plan your training as it is all part of one big plan! If you have done a particularly long or hard event, such as a marathon or anything longer than 4-5 hours of continuous effort (such as a middle or full distance triathlon), then allow yourself (at least) a full week off with no training whatsoever.
I will repeat that – no training whatsoever!
Go for some short walks (and I mean short and walk – no hiking up mountains), use the foam roller you bought off the above list, but not yet used, and combine it with some stretching.
I know – I’ve done, said, heard all the reasons before about why you should just carry on training. But don’t! If you feel good, then fantastic – your training is working and you did everything right leading up to that race. Now let your body catch up and recover.
Once you have taken this week off, repeat the week preceding your race, i.e. your last taper week. If you didn’t taper then look up what you should have done and do that! From here you then start your base fitness training phase again and build up to your next race.
I can already hear people saying ‘But what about the race I have booked in two weeks’ time…?’
The answer to this will very much depend on you as an individual at that particular point in time. You may decide to defer it or transfer it to someone else or simply not do it at all. Depending on the distance, you may decide to use it as an easy training run. And I mean just that – an easy and consistent run with a few hundred metres of acceleration at the end if you wish.
Then take a serious look at your race diary and categorise them as follows:
- A races – the ones where you properly race for a time or ones that are longer than you’ve ever raced before. The longer the race, the less you do in a year. The aforementioned base fitness phase would normally precede each A race, but for short distances, such as 5k, you can race a couple within your peak performance window
- B races – the ones you use to gauge where you’re at. These are either 5k benchmark type races if you are new or returning to running, or much shorter races than your A race. They give you the times on which you then base your training
- C races – the ones you use as training runs and/or to practice preparing for your race. I have known people who plan to and have dropped out at the 20 mile point of a marathon just so they can practice their pre-race routine on a long run.
If you race for fun and/or to run with others socially, then you can add as many C races into your calendar as you like, within reason, but do give yourself a break every so often.
If you have one or two races that mean a lot to you, then prioritise these as your A races over other C races in your diary. I.e. these are the ones that you sacrifice other races for in terms of not entering or deciding to transfer.
Essentially, if you run all your races as C races, i.e. able to chat all the way round, then you don’t necessarily need to follow the same base fitness pattern, as all your running is effectively similar to that of the base fitness phase anyway.
However, be mindful that you do need to build yourself up to this level of running in the first place, but once you are comfortably running these distances then there is no need to revert to the base training phase after each one.
Train hard and smart to achieve your own goals, not someone else’s. By all means train with other people, but choose the sessions, efforts, distances, etc that suit you on that day to suit what you want to achieve.
Everyone’s training plan should be different to factor in different goals and experience with running, but ultimately, everyone who is training and racing consistently will go through a similar process. Have a chat with a runner you admire, ask what their training entails and how long it took for them to be running the way they are – you’ll be surprised!
If you would like to chat to me about my personal experiences with running, or you would like my professional advice with your own training, you can contact me in a number of different ways here, or via my contact page.