How to prevent a running injury  //  The “Training Error:” The root of most injuries

18 Jun 2008 Posted by

In a recent post on the Comrades Marathon we posted on the shear dearth of training some runners race on. Incredibly there are runners out there who do hardly any training at all, and still run Comrades year in and year out. To be certain, they are not breaking any records, but yet they still finish within the cut-off time and walk away with another medal to add to their collection.

Earlier this week we received a newsletter from the folks at Total Immersion, a swimming site. It was unremarkable except for the story of a runner who became a swimmer:

At 36, I was a self coached runner; I believed that if I kept running faster and farther on a regular basis I could eventually run a sub 4-hour marathon. I would run fast, recover from injury, run fast and recover from injury, in an increasingly fruitless cycle.

He actually went on to take up swimming before eventually returning to running, but this snippet illustrates the approach many runners take, and they of course experience the same results.

What is a training error?

A training error is what we use to describe any sudden change, mostly an increase, in training load that results in either acute or chronic injury. In more simple terms it is the “zero to hero” concept—a runner takes up running or returns from an injury or hiatus, guns blazing. . .and starts running right away and increasing intensity and volume each a day and week. This is all good and well, and in fact our athlete sees steady improvements for 4-8 weeks. They feel better all the time, and this reinforces to them that they must be doing something correct. Eventually, however, a running injury rears its ugly head. Be it shin splints, a strain, back pain, or something else, it becomes inevitable on this schedule, and soon our runner is again reduced to no running.

A training error can also be related to “out-racing” one’s training. For example, we have often spoken to runners who train for a 3:30 marathon, but on the day get swept up and decide to run three-hour pace because they are feeling so good in the beginning. Of course they can do this for 20+ miles, but then fall into a crumpled heap on the side of the road with five km to go, battered and bruised and with a sure prescription to stop running for some weeks while they heal.

These are two examples of training errors, and it is our belief that the vast majority of running injuries are the result of a training error, and not because of biomechanical problems, shoe problems, leg length discrepancies, or any other static variable.

P.S. – Running is hard on your body

Many will agree that running is tough on your body. The impact can really wear you down, but the really amazing thing about our bodies is that we can adapt to these kinds of stresses. However we must allow our bodies sufficient time to make these adaptations, else something has to give and an injury is the result.

Therefore when consulting a novice runner who has just entered the Chicago Marathon, for example, the easy advice is not to race the event. Take it easy, build up your mileage progressively for the next 12-14 weeks, and then simply complete the distance at an easy pace. If you want to run hard(er), then you must give your body the time it needs to make all kinds of chronic adaptations on a number of different levels. This requires a strong commitment to running regularly for the next year, as the the time it takes to make all the necessary adaptations might be 12 or more months.

The problem is that many of us are impatient, and life can be unpredictable. We might have the time now to train for a fast marathon in October, but next year the circumstances might be different. It is a seemingly difficult decision, although if you place a high value on your ability to keep running for most of your life, then it should become much easier task.

Charity runners: classic zeros to heroes

These days running marathons for charity is big business, and of course it makes us feel good to support charitable or non-profit organizations. But these programs are fraught with problems as they often take previously sedentary individuals and “train them up” for a marathon with volunteer coaches who have little to no formal training. In fact at this year’s annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine there was much discussion about injury rates among charity runners, and whether or not the rates are higher compared to more experienced runners. The saving grace for this population is that hardly any of them are racing, and instead most run just for completion. As a result they run/walk their way safely to five hour marathons.

Avoiding training errors

Perhaps the best way to reduce your risk of a training error is to consult a coach, either as a once off or regularly. Following what we refer to as “progressive overload” is crucial, and this means that you must increase the stress on your body in a very incremental manner so that it can always keep up with the stress(es) by making the necessary physiological and other adaptations. Generally speaking, weekly increases in volume should be 10% or less. This seems to be a rate with which most people can readily cope and avoid problems. Such a progressive approach does not necessarily appeal to our sense of urgency, but it is likely to keep you healthy and injury free!

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