Why Runners Get Hurt
Recent research has shown that as many as 79% of runners get injured at least once during the year.
Stop. Think about that number for a moment.
Nearly 8 out of every 10 runners you see at your next race have been or will be injured sometime that year.
Recently, a lot of the attention in regards to running injuries has been focused on the bio-mechanical aspects; specifically, footwear and the minimalist movement. And while I believe 100% that finding the optimal foot strike and running gait for each individual person is critical, it’s not the first place runners should start looking when it comes to the predominance of running injuries.
In my coaching experience, there’s often a much easier solution to the running injury problem – training. And that’s what we’ll cover in this article.
The two primary reasons runners get hurt
I believe that runners primarily get injured for two reasons:
- Structural imbalances, such as having one leg shorter than another, bio-mechanical issues, or experiencing a severe weakness in a certain muscle group.
- Progressing their training volume and running speeds at a pace that their body is not ready to handle. Or, as coach Jay Johnson would technically define it, “metabolic fitness precedes structural readiness”.
As a running coach, I deal in both of these injury realities and have confronted both in my own running career. As I mentioned before, there is no doubt bio-mechanical and structural deficiencies are an important part of the equation. However, this post will focus on the importance of proper training progression since structural imbalances are something that need to be addressed outside the training cycle, is a slow process, and often requires the help of a good physical therapist, podiatrist, or chiropractor.
Structural vs. metabolic changes
Don’t be intimidated by the “science” sounding title of this article. Structural versus metabolic changes simply means that a runner’s aerobic and anaerobic fitness develops at a faster rate than their tendons, ligaments, muscles, and bones. For example, you may be able to head out the door and hammer out a long run or a tempo run at 8 minutes per mile (or whatever your tempo pace is), but your hips might not be strong enough yet to handle the stress of the pace or the length of the run and, as a result, your IT band becomes inflamed.
This experience is very common for runners who get recurring shin splints when they first start running. Their aerobic fitness is allowing them to continue to increase the distance of their runs because they no longer feel “winded” at the end of each run; however their shin muscles haven’t adapted to the increased pounding caused by the increase in distance and they quickly become injured.
In my opinion, a runner has two ways to combat these types of injuries: (1) continually address the structural system during training; and (2) progress the volume and speed work at a level the body is capable of adapting to.
Addressing the structural system
To address the structural system, I think runners should start with a running-specific strength routine that includes lots of core work so they can identify any weak areas. Research has also shown that hip strength , or lack thereof, strongly correlates with running knee injuries. Therefore, a hip strengthening program may also be beneficial.
By strengthening the core and running specific muscles, you can “speed up” the progress of the structural system and begin adding in longer and faster workouts earlier in the training cycle.
Furthermore, for beginner runners, or those who are unable to run the volume they desire, you can perform running specific strength exercises that improve your strength and flexibility while still providing an aerobic component. To accomplish this, I often have runners perform what I call the “machine” workout.
While addressing the structural aspect is important, I think the most critical component to staying injury-free is ensuring that your training plan follows a patient and planned progression while gradually introducing running at your desired goal race distance and race pace.
Jumping into speed work too quickly
When I analyze generic schedules, I often see a quick progression from easy running to full-blown speed workouts. I think the transition from mainly easy aerobic runs to any form of speed work needs to be buffered with introductory speed dynamics, such as strides, hill sprints, steady runs, and short fartleks. This concept is especially true for beginner runners.
Furthermore, most long-time runners have heard of the training concept known as the “base building” period. Base building refers to a portion of the training cycle where the runner focuses on increasing mileage and forgoes harder workouts. However, I believe the traditional base building cycle may actually contribute to most running injuries.
While slowly increasing training volume is a good thing, most runners exit the base building cycle and introduce speed work too quickly. While they’ve upped their mileage and training volumes and feel confident in their new strength and endurance, they’ve gone numerous weeks, or even months, without doing any type of speed work and expect to jump back into race pace without any consequence. When you neglect doing faster pace work for an extended length of time, you lose the muscular readiness to run fast without increasing injury risk.
To combat this, runners need to include strides, hill sprints and even short fartleks into their training at all times. This doesn’t mean runners have to be laser focused year-round, but simply adding in a few strides and hill sprints a few times per week will go a long way towards warding off injuries.
In addition, as has been much discussed in previous articles, you have to make sure that you take your easy runs slow and give your body a chance to recover from the stress you’re inducing.
Race specific running
Finally, as I’ve discussed previously on this blog, you need to train to the specific demands of the race. So, if you want to run 10k in 40 minutes, you need to train your body to do two things: (1) handle 6:25 per mile pace without breaking down; and (2) handle 6:25 mile pace for 6.2 miles without breaking down.
So, in-line with what I’ve been discussing, you first need to get your body adjusted to running 6:25 per mile. For example, your first workout might look like: 12 x 400 @ 1:35 w/90 sec rest. Later in the training segment, as your body adjusts to the workload, your workout might become: 8 x 800 @ 3:12 w/90 sec rest. Now, you’re doing 5 miles of volume at race pace instead of 3, but because you’ve slowly introduced work at race pace to your body, your structure is able to handle the stress. You final workout 10 days before the race might look like: 10 x 1000 @ 4:00 w/60 sec rest, hammer # 5 and 8.
By being patient and gradually introducing both race pace work and specific volume at race pace, you can hit all your time goals while staying injury free.
I am interested to hear if you like the more “theoretical” nature of this post or if you prefer the specific “how to” articles better. As always, I enjoy comments and feedback, so please don’t hesitate to comment below or share via facebook and twitter.
*I want to acknowledge that a lot of my thoughts on this subject were inspired from Jay Johnson, who also wrote a piece on this topic in his blog and Mike Smith, the head Cross Country Coach at Kansas State University.