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Injury is the word no runner wants to hear. It’s easy to think that if anything throws us slightly off plan then everything is lost. But the truth is that the plan is just a guide. There is no magic sequence of events that lead us to being our best and in fact, sometimes when the road ahead is blocked, another route opens up which gets us there quicker.
I had an interesting question this week:
“I tested positive (for Covid) and have had to miss a week of training already, just want to know do you think it’s still worth training for the marathon?”
This encapsulates the fear that if something doesn’t go 100% right then we won’t achieve the perfect outcome. But there will always be something that crops up that means we can’t do everything by the book. And I would argue that if it didn’t then we’re not as prepared to adapt and deal with whatever a race throws at us.
Unfortunately Covid cases are so rife now that avoiding it, especially with kids in school, seems to be a lottery. Thankfully, the severity for most seems to have reduced and the main inconvenience I hear these days is just the inability to get out to train due to self-isolation.
Of course if you are unlucky enough to suffer with bad symptoms which can linger on then the route back is going to be slower and you’ll need to tread more carefully but for most, a week off training is not going to have a massively detrimental effect especially over the course of a marathon training cycle.
So yes, absolutely it is worth carrying on with the training. In reality, you won’t have lost any fitness in a week and more likely than not, the rest will have done you some good.
My advice is simply not to go full throttle in the first session back and use the first week to ease back in. Don’t try to make up for the miles or sessions missed and you may need to adjust the next couple of weeks slightly just to reduce the load a little.
I’ve been very lucky with (or maybe you could now say proactive against) injuries but the ankle injuries I sustained in 2018 and the back end of 2021 both required a month off running. They probably affected me in quite different ways but I certainly look back at the 2018 injury as a turning point in my running career.
Up to that point, I had never really had a serious injury but I’d also never really fully thrown myself into trying to be the best runner I could be. I’d achieved a few smaller running goals which I was pleased with but a sub 3 hour marathon seemed like a pipe dream. With a best of 3:25, I’d need to run a whole minute faster every mile.
However, I always felt like I had time on my side. The time hadn’t been ‘right’ and ‘one day’ I would give it a go. That changed during the month when I couldn’t run. I realised that you never know what is around the corner and that if I wanted to try and do it, there was no better time than when I had recovered from my injury.
The month off gave me a renewed appreciation of running and helped me not to take it for granted. I was far more consistent in my training and to my surprise I managed to run 2:58 later that year. I still put a lot of that down to changing my outlook while I was injured.
My latest layoff has been a little different. It happened when I was in the best shape I’d ever been, having just run a PB in Berlin despite difficult conditions. I felt if I could get to Manchester six months later in the same shape, I’d have a good chance of breaking that again.
However, what I realised through injury is that I’d needed a break all along. I wasn’t exactly loving running – the few months before had been the toughest I’d ever done. By the time I was able to run again, I couldn’t wait to get going.
Injury is a reminder of what I said before – you never know what is around the corner. I’m probably 6-7 weeks behind where I wanted to be at this stage but I’m remaining positive. I worked back really slowly after the injury and am feeling no ill effects.
I can feel my fitness is not where it needs to be yet but I still have 9 weeks and hopefully conditions will be on my side so that I may get close to that Berlin time. There are other goals to play for too like qualifying for Boston again which is pencilled in for 2023.
The takeaway here is that an injury can allow you to refocus on what is important. It can help you rediscover the joy of running and it can help you to change the way you approach it to get better results in the future.
For those that are unlucky to have a longer term injury of months or a recurring problem it must be very frustrating. Everything that I said above can still be true but it is also difficult to hold onto the hope that you will get past the injury and onto better things.
Working with a good physio has been invaluable to me. So many runners I talk to think that their injuries will get better or vanish simply with rest. And whilst rest can be good, it will not cure most problems.
Injuries are usually a result of a specific incident where damage has occured or long term problems caused by too much load on the body where it is too weak to cope. In both cases, focusing on the right ways to strengthen the body is key to being able to avoid problems in the future.
A good physio can not only tell you what you need to work on but help keep you accountable and also keep you realistic about your progress and expectations. My physio is great at focusing on what I can do rather than what I can’t do.
She also records my pain levels and frequency of pain so that she can give an objective opinion on my progress. Quite often our view of progress is subjectively clouded by our unrealistic expectations or even just our mood on the day.
Focus on what you can do. We are runners and that can mean that not being able to run seems like it’s not worth doing anything else. But maybe you can find something else you do enjoy. I’m not a keen swimmer but I went to the pool a few times and found it was still good for my mental health when I couldn’t run.
Maybe you can focus more on strength work in general. Maybe it’s a good time to start sorting your nutrition out (check out my free ‘Kickstart your nutrition guide’). Maybe it’s getting back to another passion you have in life like music or spending more time with friends and family.
Running won’t go anywhere. It is waiting for you when you are ready. If you have bucket list goals like running the London marathon for example, then keep focusing on that during your rehab. It will help you to put the work into getting back to where you need to be.
Whilst none of us like injury or illness, it is going to affect us all at some point so being prepared to reframe it in a positive way will help you absorb the shock when it does happen.
Best of all, can you pre-empt an injury and be bold enough to take a week or two off when you need to before an injury occurs? Listen to your body and don’t be afraid of taking a break. The rest will do you good and you won’t lose the fitness that you would with a medium to long term injury.
Stay fit, stay safe, stay running.
Most things in life take time to get good at. They take dedicated practice. Yet most of us can run without any practice because we learnt the skill when we were young. Because of this, sometimes we choose to believe there are ‘natural’ runners out there and that we have a limited given skill level.
However, we all have the ability to improve greatly through consistent practice. Our fitness improves and so does our technique. We build mental resilience too which is a vital component to running success.
But what does consistency look like? Do we have to be running every day of the week? Do we need to be running 100 miles a week?
We all have a potential which far exceeds what we’ll ever actually achieve. Even elites may never quite accomplish what they are physically capable of because so many things have to fall into place for a ‘perfect’ outcome.
Just think what lengths Eliud Kipchoge had to go to to break the 2 hour marathon mark. It was physically possible for him but only by optimising his environment with pacers that shielded the air resistance.
Mere mortals like us will never get close to what we could achieve because most of us do not have the time, money or inclination to train as elites would do. We have jobs, families and other commitments.
However, we can achieve a more limited potential that is still much higher than most of us believe. It is governed by how much time and effort we want to commit to it.
Initially, the returns from a relatively small time investment can be huge. After a while, it takes a lot of extra time for small gains so it becomes a question of how far you want to go.
But whatever level of commitment you choose, being consistent week to week speeds up your progress and minimises your risk of injury. The latter is possibly one of the biggest barriers to runners achieving their goals. So how do you get consistency?
The temptation can be to stretch yourself too much at the start. This can either be due to what you think is required to be successful or by watching what others do. I now run 6 days a week every week but that has been built up slowly over years of running 3 then 4 then 5 days a week.
Choose something that is easy for you to achieve. If 3 days seems like a lot, could you run 1 or 2 days at the start? If an hour is too much, could you do 20 or 30 minutes of running each time?
You can always add more days and more minutes to your weeks in the future. The key is to get started with something that you can manage right now.
Make yourself a plan by factoring in your weekly commitments and fit your training around them. Preferably, you can find the same slots every week that you will be able to do your training in. If not, then it is even more important to plan.
Make sure you can see your plan especially in the early days. It is easy to forget to do a session at the start if you don’t have a visual prompt. And if you miss one, that’s when you can miss more and the whole plan falls by the wayside.
Print your plan out and stick it where you will see it every day. Maybe in your bedroom, or on the fridge or next to your desk at work. Do it where you need the prompt.
Alternatively, if you are more in favour of a digital reminder, add it to your calendar or add it to your reminders. Again, time the prompts to when they will have the most effect.
Structure your training at times which will give you the most chance of completing it. If you know you only have an hour window at lunchtime between two important meetings then it might be better to plan to do it earlier or later in the day.
If you know that you’re usually tired after work and not in the mood for a run then try and go before work.
Have your gear ready to go where and when you need it. There’s nothing worse than rooting around to try and find a pair of running socks or gloves if you’re in a hurry. If you’re running from somewhere other than home, be sure to check the weather and take everything you’re likely to need, preferably packing your bag the night before.
If food for after your training is an issue (for instance if you’re running at work), make yourself a lunch or snack the night before so that you don’t have to cut your run short to get food from somewhere else.
Consistency is much easier if you’re working towards a goal. The goal could be a race or time trial, a new distance or it could be simply adhering to your plan. In fact it can be useful to have both outcome goals and process goals.
An outcome goal is simply what you want to achieve at the ‘end’ of the training. The ‘end’ here could be a literal end if you decided not to continue running but is more likely to be the end of a block of training.
This could be running a certain distance, or a certain time for a distance. It could be achieving a certain weekly time or distance goal.
A process goal is almost more important. It is what you want to achieve week to week with your training. Sometimes this can be less tangible but it could be along the lines of enjoyment, keeping your consistency going or a weekly improvement in some area.
If we only ever focus on the outcome then it can make week to week training much harder and also increase the disappointment if we don’t quite make our outcome goal.
As alluded to, having some goals will help maintain your consistency. However, a lot of people respond best when they are challenged. If you set all your goals to be very easy then it is possible to become disinterested.
Find new ways to keep your training interesting and challenging. Don’t be afraid to push the boundaries of what you can do as long as you build to it sensibly and within the framework of your training.
Build new training stimuli like elevation, new terrain, more distance and more intensity slowly into your training but keep reviewing which areas you would like to change and improve on.
You can’t keep pushing all the time. That can lead to overuse injuries and becoming burnt out. Remember to keep a high proportion of your training easy. Have some down weeks to recover physically and mentally.
You don’t always have to be on the edge of your capabilities even in harder sessions. Sometimes, accomplishing a session whilst feeling you had a little more to give can be a powerful mental tool for future sessions.
If you are constantly struggling in every session it will sap your enjoyment and increase your doubts of your own abilities. Find a balance to your training that is challenging but where you are able to prevail more often than not.
Ultimately, you can follow everything above but if you are not enjoying your training your consistency will wane in the end. Hopefully following everything above will sustain both your enjoyment and your consistency.
Of course there will always be the odd session that didn’t go to plan or you didn’t feel 100% on but if that is happening more often than not then you need to change something up. Go back through the list. Is your training sustainable, working towards a goal, challenging but also manageable?
By staying consistent with your training you greatly reduce the risk of injury caused by sporadic high and low mileage weeks. You will also raise your base fitness to a much higher level allowing you to build and excel at your running in the future.
Injuries can be the most frustrating aspect of running. Some are unfortunate like spraining an ankle on uneven terrain but in many cases we can avoid or at least mitigate injuries by looking after ourselves more.
The first obvious thing to say is that if you have any injury concerns you should see a good physio. Even if you have never had any issues, it is worth having a recommended physio ready should you ever need them.
I’ve talked to plenty of people before complaining of niggles but when I ask if they’ve been to a physio they’ll say ‘Yeah I should do that’ or ‘I’ll see if it gets any better this week’. That’s code for ‘I’m not going to see a physio – I don’t think it’s serious enough’!
Physios are not just for elite athletes – we all need a bit of maintenance or fixing from time to time. If something unexpected started happening with your car, would you take it to a mechanic or keep driving it hoping it would go away?
Additionally to seeing a physio, I advise getting a yearly check up with your GP just to make sure there are no new issues with your heart health.
The stronger your body is the more chance you have of staying injury free. Many people who love running, including me, shy away from specific strength training because they don’t find it as fun. However, it doesn’t need to take a huge amount of time or even be a chore.
If you have been to the physio before they may well have given you strengthening exercises for your weak areas which can form the basis of your routine. Exercises like squats, planks and hip hinges will improve your mobility as well as building strength.
If you find time is an issue, try doing a set of exercises after an easy run day (just not the day before an intense session). If you find doing strength work boring, stick on your favourite podcast, audiobook or music to help get through it.
Different types of running sessions such as hill training or cross country can also help with strength. As always, if you are trying something new, build up slowly!
A good training plan will manage the volume of training properly week to week but you also have to be aware of your base level of fitness before starting any plan. You can’t immediately go from running 10 miles a week to a plan starting at 30 miles a week without increasing your risk of injury.
Similarly, you need to monitor the intensity of your training. Running too hard too much of the time increases cortisol (commonly referred to as the stress hormone) because your body cannot tell if you are running for fun or running away from a sabre toothed tiger!
Yes you will have some sessions in the week that are hard and these will adapt your body over time but too many people run too hard during their easy runs. It wasn’t until I started monitoring my heart rate that I realised I was running too fast on easy days.
Running slower on easy days has tremendous aerobic benefits but also reduces the stress on your body and your recovery time. It should leave you feeling fresher to tackle the hard days too.
Take your best wine glass and drop it onto different running terrains. Is it most likely to survive on grass, sand, treadmill or pavement? I certainly wouldn’t be backing the pavement! Running exerts tremendous forces through the body which can be reduced by running on softer surfaces.
However, although this is true, you should introduce this gradually if it is not something you do very often. You will need more strength to run on softer surfaces because the reactive force is not as great from the surface. Anyone who has run cross country in the mud will know it takes much more effort to keep going than on the road!
Additionally, some of these softer surfaces are less even and predictable so you need to be more vigilant for potential hazards such as holes in the grass / sand or tree roots on trails. Introduce new terrains slowly into your routine.
Your diet can have a big impact on your injury and illness prevention. Your body needs energy for all bodily functions, not just exercise. Eating enough to fuel your training is important because it prevents taking energy away from other things like your immune system and bone health.
Additionally, eating a well balanced, varied diet with good quality foods will help to get all the micronutrients essential for good health. To go back to the car analogy, you are very careful to put the right fuel in your car to avoid problems down the line and although the body is far more complex, the same basic principle should apply to your body.
As a last note on diet, carrying excess weight can add more stress to the joints when running. This is absolutely not to say you shouldn’t run unless at your optimal weight. It is so beneficial to exercise no matter what your body composition. However, it does mean you should respect the extra work your body has to do and that losing a few pounds (if you wish) may help prevent injury.
As mentioned before, training can put an extra stress on your body. Generally, this is good because you control the amount of stress to a level that is healthy and will adapt your body to be stronger over the long term.
However, there are many other stresses we encounter in our daily lives. Poor sleep, work stress and anxiety can give your body more to cope with than it can handle. It doesn’t necessarily have to be linked to training stress, the body has to deal with everything that is thrown at it.
At times of sleep deprivation or high pressures at work, we are more vulnerable to injury and illness. The key is to be flexible, listen to your body, understand what pressures you are under and adapt training accordingly if necessary. It could be tempting to blast your fastest 5k of the year after a stressful meeting but it might not be the best for your body!
What is causing you the most risk of injury? What could be a quick fix for you? Whilst it is difficult to predict exactly when and how an injury will manifest itself, by being aware of the factors above, you can stack the odds more in your favour.
I was flying at the start of the year. I’d clocked my fastest mile ever in training and had my sights set on beating my shorter distance PBs. I ran a 5 mile PB in challenging conditions and had a 10k round the corner. I was about to start training for a marathon PB in the summer.
Then I decided to take on a half marathon fell race. It seemed sensible to get some hill training ahead of a mountain race in France I was doing at the end of summer. I’d been going about 5 miles; some steady up followed by very uneven terrain across the top and a rapid descent.
It was misty and I’d lost sight of the runners ahead but at least I could hear the traffic on the road down below. I wasn’t far away but the grass was wet and slippery. I made a split second decision to move onto rocks and stones over to the right to avoid sliding down the slope.
As I landed on my right foot it rolled out too far to the right as the rocks gave way and I let out a howl. After a few moments I got back to my feet and although the pain wasn’t too bad I knew something was wrong. I hobbled down to the road and contemplated hobbling round to the finish.
Instead, I decided to take my shoe off to inspect the damage more closely. I could immediately see what the issue was. I had a bruise the size of a tennis ball on the side of my foot. There was no way I’d be able to get the shoe back on even if I’d wanted to. Moments later my clubmate caught up with me, took one look at my foot and told me to get to hospital. My race was over.
I was lucky, or so I thought. I hadn’t broken anything but I had damaged the ligaments in my foot. I was given crutches and prescribed a course of PRICE (Painkillers, Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation – actually compression wasn’t mentioned in this case so maybe it was RIPE!) I would get physio on it in a week’s time.
After a week I barely needed the crutches and I had my initial assessment with the physio. My rehabilitation was going well. However, I’d been warned that initial progress would be much faster than subsequent progress.
Days turned into weeks with my question at every physio session – “When can I get back running?”. At first he pretty much laughed my question off as if I was joking then after a while started to set my expectation that I was still a couple of weeks off.
About 4 weeks after my injury I went back out for my first run. I intended to run slow and only a mile or so but I ended up doing 4k at a decent pace. The following week I did 4 miles and ran a decent 5k. I still had 7 weeks until the marathon I should have been training for. Maybe I could still make it?
Six weeks later I’m a week out from the marathon. I’m going to do it but seriously wondering if that was sensible. My foot feels ok when running but I can feel it niggle the rest of the time. I know I haven’t dedicated enough time to strengthening it.
My training program has been ‘designed’ to build up my long miles with plenty of rest days to try and recover. The result is that a lot of the shorter faster and hillier stuff has been left out which means I can’t compete at the level I want to.
If I’d sacrificed the marathon I might have been further down the road to ironing out the problems in my foot. I might have been able to compete better over the shorter distances. The problem is that we as runners are stubborn. We don’t like to be told we can’t do something. I’m going to do this marathon. But what am I doing it for?
In my defense, if it had only been the marathon I would probably have pulled out of it. 5 weeks after the marathon I take on the Canigou race in the Pyrenees in France. It is race I am completely unprepared for but it holds sentimental value for me and I need to complete it in whatever fashion I can (which for me will probably be walking large sections of it).
The idea of training for the marathon first was to get some distance into my legs ahead of that race. I didn’t feel ready to do hill training (though I will start if I get through the marathon in one piece). I’m now petrified of steep downhills. And the marathon is fairly flat. At least I’ll have some distance in my legs I thought. There is method in the madness. Somewhere.
The problem is that I see everyone else in tip-top shape for the marathon and wonder what my aim is here. I honestly don’t know what is realistic. I should be happy just to complete it in any time. But it would be nice if it wasn’t my slowest ever. Or if it was faster than my first. The mind sets goals that the body may not be capable of.
I’ve been very lucky; this is the first time I’ve ever been injured and it’s not been too serious. But it has still impacted my training for nearly 3 months now. However, I can empathise better how it can hit you mentally. It is difficult to accept that it will take time to get back to where you were. It isn’t easy to see others breezing past you. And I now realise how hard the work is that will get you back to where you were.
When deciding this, consider not only the distance and your own fitness but the terrain, altitude, climate and your health on the day. In my case this applied to the fell race especially. I hadn’t practised enough steep hill routes in training and was not cautious enough coming downhill. More training may not have stopped the accident but it would have made it less likely.
We as runners never want to hear that we are injured from an expert. That would make it real. That would stop us running. However, this is a short-sighted view because nipping an injury in the bud early will save a lot of downtime later on. Even if you are not sure, get it seen to by a physio or doctor. Don’t rely on a self-diagnosis from the internet or anecdotal stories from unqualified runners.
Your physio is going to tell you do stretches in many cases to strengthen the injured area. These are not exciting. They are not setting PBs on Strava but they are what will get you there faster. I know that my progress was quicker on the weeks I did more of the stretches than others. They shouldn’t take long, you just need to block off 10-15 minute slots to do them. Get them done, get back faster.
If you are unable to run for more than a couple of weeks you will start to lose the fitness you had built up. This is when you need a non-impact activity to do such as swimming, cycling or yoga. The problem is, if like me you don’t do any of these regularly, then it can seem alien to start doing these once you are injured. Pick a cross-training activity that you like and start it when you are fit once a week so that you have something should you need it. In any case it is beneficial within your training to give your legs one non-impact training day in the week.
There are a few things you can do here. Firstly, you should stretch after every session. 15 second stretches for your calves, hamstrings, quads, hip flexors etc will restore the muscles to their normal length and reduce the likelihood of tightness. After long runs, I find a cold bath works wonders to get the legs to recover faster. They are not pleasant when you are getting in but you do get used to it after the initial shock! You could also get a sports massage from time to time which will help any tightness and get rid of the lactic acid in the muscles.
Giving your body an extra day to recover from time to time is not going to adversely affect your overall training plan. Rest is important especially if you are feeling a potential problem area. You should also rest if you are ill. A head cold is usually ok to run with but you should rest with anything chesty or more serious. If in doubt, leave it out. Overtraining can happen if you are trying to build up your training, possibly when targeting a new distance. Rule of thumb is no more than a 10% increase in weekly running mileage or long run mileage otherwise you run a higher risk of injury as your body is not used to the extra strain.
If you suddenly get an injury it is easy to switch off and let it get you down. You quickly need to refocus and build towards a new target. The new target may just be getting back to fitness or it may be a more realistic running target. If you’ve had a very long term injury, try and focus on seasons’ bests rather than personal best. Stay in contact with runners who will check how you are, have recovered from injuries themselves or just generally give you a mental boost.
Being injured is the worst thing for a runner. If you are not prepared for the possibility, it can knock you for six both physically and mentally. However, taking as many steps towards injury prevention as possible coupled with a strategy to get back to fitness if an injury does occur should stop injuries derailing your running completely.