I have mentioned a few times here and in comments on other blogs that I am very fortunate to not get injured very often. Since I started running when I was a freshman in college (so going on seven years of running now), I have only been injured once. I’ve had some aches and pains, especially when I was new to running, and I’ve had to take breaks due to illness or travel, but only once have I had to stop running because of an injury.
Back in the summer of 2010, I could not run and had to go to physical therapy for problems due to weak ankles and underpronation (supination), which means I was rolling my feet outward and landing mostly on the outer part of my foot (so most of the impact was on the side of my foot and I was not driving off using my big toe). I was already having some problems with my ankles when I slipped on some ice and rolled my ankle early in 2010…and then kept running on it. Thankfully, PT fixed me up, and since then (knock on wood!), I have not suffered from any running injuries.
So how do I stay so injury free? It’s not that I have textbook perfect form or am super genetically blessed—I have a loud footstrike (or a “stomper” as it’s called), I sometimes overstride, etc. I’m constantly working to improve my form to keep myself injury-free and to run faster and more efficiently. How I stay injury-free in running for almost five years now is by frequently doing the following seven things.
(I am not yet a certified running coach. These tips are based off of research and personal experience; not everything I say applies to every runner! You should listen to your physical therapist or other healthcare professionals when dealing with injury.)
I sleep a lot
I love to sleep. I’m also a napper, and since I spend all day at home, I take naps a few days a week even. Most nights I easily clock eight hours of sleep. Even when I was in college and graduate school, I prioritized sleep and made sure to get seven solid hours. In addition to helping me stay productive during the school/work days, getting plenty of sleep helps my body recover from running, especially when I’m logging lots of miles and running intense workouts during training. It is during rest, particularly sleep, that your body is able to recover and repair your muscles. And it’s during recovery, not the workouts themselves, that your muscles adapt and get stronger! The less sleep you get, the more wear and tear on your muscles goes unrepaired, and then the more prone those worn muscles are to overuse and injury.
I eat a balanced diet of whole foods with no restrictions
I’m very fortunate not to have any food intolerances, so I do not restrict any foods from my diet. I eat lots of fruits, vegetables, and complex carbohydrates, and I also make sure to get healthy fats each day and red meat no less than every 10 days. This allows me to get a wide variety of vitamins and nutrients, especially from the 4 servings of fruit and 4-6 servings of vegetables I eat on average each day.
Out of all things in my diet, I notice that healthy fats, dairy, and red meat has the most impact on my running. Studies, such as this one from the University of Buffalo, have found that female athletes who eat low-fat diets are more likely to get injured because of lack of nutrients. Our bodies need healthy fats to absorb the nutrients from fruits and vegetables (many vitamins are fat-soluble). I eat cheese regularly, snack on Greek yogurt, and make my morning oatmeal with milk (1% rBST-free cow’s milk, to be specific), and the regularly intake of calcium helps my bones stay strong and prevent stress fractures. Red meat provides me with protein and iron, which I really need during the peak of training. When I got injured, I was not eating red meat at all (I was eating mostly vegetarian), so whether it was causation or merely correlation, I connect that lack of nutrients (iron, protein, etc) with injury.
Maintaining a healthy weight
For me, eating a balanced diet means allowing little treats each day, usually one beer or glass of wine and some chocolate or a serving of whatever baked good I made recently. While I’m definitely lean, I’m not a super skinny elite athlete. I’d honestly rather eat more than I should than undereat in order to be at a “perfect” racing weight. This doesn’t mean I’m binge eating, but it means I’m not restricting my diet. In a recent interview with Outside Online, sports nutritionist Matt Fitzgerald said, “The risk of eating too much [for runners] is a few extra pounds, whereas not eating enough can sabotage your training and performance.”
When female athletes eat too little and get too thin, it can lead to female athlete triad. Female athlete triad includes not getting your periods, not having enough body fat, and having premature osteoporosis (low bone density). Low bone density means your bones are weak and brittle, which puts you at high risk for stress fractures!
I have been practicing Pilates for nearly ten years now, which is longer than I’ve been running. I taught Pilates for almost two years in college and continue to do it at least once a week (with the occasional slump) since then. Pilates improves posture (which improves running form), strengthens your core, stabilizes your spine and hips, and improves your balance. For many female runners, hip problems are one of the top causes of injury, so Pilates can really work wonders as it strengthens and stabilizes that problem area. Pilates is also a non-impact and low-intensity workout (but that doesn’t mean it’s easy!), so it’s ideal for runners. Read more about the benefits of Pilates for runners in this post from Mommy Runs Fast.
Vary my training surfaces
I prefer to run outside, and if I would run the same route every day. However, I vary my training routes and surfaces both for physiological stimulus and to prevent injury. I run on the treadmill at least once a week (ideally a recovery/easy run), which is gentler on my joints and helps maintain the high (for me) frequency of running 5-6 days per week. I also run hillier routes on easier days and flatter routes on speedwork/tempo days to work different muscles and thus decrease the risk of overuse injuries. This is also mentally good for me, since it prevent monotony in training. If you don’t like the treadmill even for one run a week, try training on the track or the trail to run a gentler surface.
Intuitively running my paces
With the exception of mile repeats, I prefer fartleks to intervals at prescribed distances and paces. Fartleks let me intuitively set my pace, depending on how I’m feeling that day, the weather, my volume of running for that week, and my current level of fitness. Instead of pushing myself too hard to run 8 x 800 meters in 3:30 when I’m just having an off-day, I’ll do 8 x 3-4 minutes hard. I may run faster or slower than I would for the prescribed interval workout, but what matters is I’m not pushing myself too hard in speedwork. Pushing yourself too soon, too hard, or too much in speedwork is a fast path to overtraining, which is one of the biggest causes in injury. This is one of the reasons many coaches advocate fartlek runs to ease yourself from the base building period into the peak weeks of training. Check out this great article from Running Times on how you should only do frequent speed work (in the article defined as repeats at your VO2max) during the last 4-8 weeks of race training to maximize gains and prevent overtraining.
Researchers estimate that 61% of serious runners will overtrain and suffer from an increased risk of injury due to overtraining. While overtraining can come from volume, it is more likely to happen from doing too many hard workouts like track repeats. Since overtraining weakens yours body and compromises your running performance, you are more prone to shin splints, pulled muscles, IT band syndrome, Achilles tendinitis, and plantar fasciitis. Certain muscular imbalances in your body may not bother you when you are running low mileage, but as you increase how many miles per week you run, you put additional stress on those weaker and imbalanced areas. Overtraining does not let those weaker muscles and imbalanced areas adjust to the demands of running or recover properly, thus increasingly the likelihood of those imbalances turning into injuries.
I spend time building a base each year
If you quickly increase your weekly mileage or start doing challenging speed workouts without a strong base built, you are at a higher risk of overtraining. Many runners experience injuries while training for a big race, especially a half or full marathon, and this could be due to doing too much too soon in training. Your body needs time to adapt to the stress of training, especially if you are doing harder workouts; adding on lots of miles or speed workouts too without a proper base puts too much stress on your muscles and leads to overtraining. If you are a new runner, spend at least four to eight weeks doing easy runs and adjusting your body to the physical stress of running before adding on training-specific workouts such as tempo runs and intervals. More experienced runners can prevent their risk of injury by focusing on building endurance between races with periods devoted to lots of easy running and virtually no speedwork. As you run more at an easier pace, your body will adapt more to the physiological demands of running and increase its injury resistance. Read more about the hows and whys of base building here!
I wear more natural shoes
I wore heels all the time for the first three years I was running. Wearing heels is not good for you feet or ankles, because the heels put your feet in an unnatural position, squeeze your toes, alter your stride, and are just so uncomfortable. During these years, I was also wearing thickly cushioned Nike shoes for running. Neither of these shoes were good for my feet, and the combination likely contributed to my injury. After my injury, I stopped wearing heels except to special events and then switched a couple years later to neutral and lightweight running shoes (I currently wear Brooks Pure Flow). My feet are stronger from wearing more practical shoes like flats and boots during the day, and a lightweight running shoe encourages a natural stride that helps me prevent supination. Lightweight running shoes strengthen your feet and ankles, since you stop depending on your shoes for support and instead learn to use those muscles in your feet and ankles when you run. If you have to wear high heels, be sure to use a tennis ball to massage them out at the end of the day and do exercises such as these from Runner’s World.
Questions of the Day:
Are you prone to injury?
How do you stay injury free while training?