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Runners! Train smart and avoid injury!

Updated: Mar 29, 2023

The majority of running injuries that I see in practice fall into two groups. The first is caused by a weakness somewhere and could have been avoided by a basic strength training programme. The second is through training errors. In this article, I’ll give you some simple tips that you can apply to your training schedule to help avoid injury.

Runners can avoid injury if they train smart.

In this article:

  • First things first: What happens to your body when you train

  • How much rest do you need?

  • How to safely increase your mileage or speed.

  • Don’t push all year round.

  • Mental fatigue plays a big role.

  • Struggling with a work/life/training balance?

First things first: What happens to your body when you train

When you do a workout, the body first responds by breaking down before it slowly recovers and rebuilds itself to a point where it is actually stronger than before.

If you train that same muscle group again before it has fully recovered, you’ll accumulate the damage and if you do this often enough it may lead to injury.

This graph shows what happens to your body when you train and why it is important to allow enough recovery time.

How much rest do you need?

It depends on several factors e.g. what type of training you’ve done, your fitness levels, for how many years you’ve done that specific activity, genetics and mental fatigue to name but a few.

But here are some basic guidelines that you can apply:

  • Allow 24 hours recovery after a moderate or easy workout. So if you did an easy run this morning, don’t run again until tomorrow. If you’re fit enough, you may be OK to swim or do an arm workout 8 hours later as it will work different muscles groups and your cardiovascular system should have recovered by then.

  • Allow 48 hours recovery after a hard workout, before you train the same muscles. A hard workout can include sprint work, hill work, strength training or even a very long run. Again, if your cardiovascular system is fit enough you may be able to do an easy workout the next day e.g. swim or easy bike ride if you did a hard legs session the previous day.

  • Plan a rest week every 3rd or 4th week. If you're serious about training, you should make sure that you plan your recovery periods just as meticulously as the rest of it. Cut the volume and intensity of your training dramatically during that week and make sure that you eat a good diet and get enough sleep. That will ensure that you’re physically and mentally ready for your next block of training.

  • Listen to your body! If you're feeling tired and sore, it’s not the time to try and smash out a hard session. You can use the grid below to help you decide if you should train or rather rest and recover.

How to decide if you should train or rest.

How to safely increase your mileage or speed.

The 10% rule seems to hold true across several different sports. It basically states that you should not increase your training by more than 10% per week or else, the research in cricket, running, rugby, etc. has shown, you may be heading for injury.

Of course you may be able to do it safely if you’re working alongside an experienced coach who closely monitors your mental and physical well-being, but I would advise not to push the boundaries too often.

What does this mean in practice? For runners, you can measure it in a few different ways. Speed work may be best measured in total time spent working at a certain heart rate while endurance training is usually measured as total distance that week. E.g. if I ran 20 km this week, I should not increase my total mileage by more than 2 km next week.

A GPS enabled sports watch, such as those made by Garmin, can help you to log your mileage and effort accurately.

Don’t push all year round

Have you ever noticed that most sports seems to have an on and off season. Yes, climate does influence this to some extent, but one of the main reasons is that the human body can’t consistently perform at a high intensity all year round.

Top athletes usually divide their year into 3 phases. During phase one they build up their base level strength and fitness to gradually reach peak performance. Then they enter competition phase where their aim is usually to just maintain that peak level of fitness. Once the competition phase is over they enter a 3 to 6 week rest phase where they take time off to rest and recover physically and mentally.

One sport where players seem to ignore this cycle is tennis. The players tend to follow the sun and continuously play tournaments all year round. This may be one of the reasons for the high injury rate amongst the top players.

Mental fatigue plays a big role

It is important to understand the mental fatigue also has a physical effect on your body and it has been shown to slow down your healing process and recovery from training, reduce your response to training and affect your performance. The image below summarises it nicely. As a result, you may be predisposing yourself to injury if you continue to try and train hard without taking time out for self-care.

Mental fatigue is an interesting subject because exercise can either help it or make it worse. If hard training is the main reason why you’re feeling drained, then the obvious thing would be to reduce training.

If, however, stress from work is the main cause and you find that exercise relieves it, you may be better off continuing to train but just adjusting the volume and intensity so that you enjoy it rather than feel overwhelmed by the thought of it.

And lastly, make enough time for self-care. This can take many forms, but the basics include eating healthy meals, enough sleep and time to relax.

Need more help with your injury? You’re welcome to consult one of the team at SIP online via video call for an assessment of your injury and a tailored treatment plan.

About the Author

Maryke Louw is a chartered physiotherapist with more than 15 years' experience and a Masters Degree in Sports Injury Management. Follow her on LinkedIn or ReasearchGate



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