Getting injured is the fear of most endurance athletes. If you’ve been hit with injuries in the past that have put you out for any length of time you will be as keen as I am to avoid injury in the future. Here are ten things that I have found as a coach have helped athletes stay injury free.
- Don’t do too much intensity
- Build up gradually
- See a good sports massage therapist or physiotherapist regularly
- Eat well
- Work from where you are not where you think you should be.
- Allow enough recovery between hard workouts.
- Stop before niggles become a problem.
- Have regular recovery weeks.
- Have some down time after your season/main event.
- Sleep well.
1) Don’t do too much intensity.
It’s easy to get caught up in structured speedy workouts – the adrenaline at the end of them is high and they are great to do in groups. However, working at higher intensities carries more injury risk than working in lower zones. I commonly see athletes trying to do too many hard sessions each week. Stephen Seiler’s polarised approach, which works very well for top professional athletes suggests 20% or less of your training sessions should include intensity; this is enough to get the desired effect. Depending on your experience and training history, I usually find that one or two speed sessions per week is enough; being open to doing one rather than two could mean the difference between being injured or getting to the start line of your race.
Another common error I see is athletes doing their easy sessions too fast – once you go over your aerobic threshold you are working hard…it might not feel it but it’s still costing your body physiologically far more than working below this threshold…so keep the easy stuff easy and the hard stuff hard. In short for an easy workout you should be able to hold a conversation as you do it; if you can’t you are going too hard.
2) Build up Gradually.
If you are looking to increase your overall volume or intensity, doing so gradually will allow your body to get more robust and stronger and gradually adapt to the increase. Doing too much too soon just puts extra strain on your joints and muscles before they are ready and can lead to over training.
Most people suggest the 10% rule – don’t increase overall volume by more than 10% from one week to the next. However, as per my last point, you also need to account for the addition of any intensity which may mean that you have to reduce overall volume.
A good way to think about building volume for your event is to focus on the minimum requirement first (usually distance/time) and increase the time of your long session in small increments throughout each 3-4 week cycle of training. Once you are able to go for a good amount of time relative to your main event you can then think about adding in speed.
If you look at how my fitness progressed for my marathon at the end of June 2022 you can see that it took me right from September the previous year to build up the fitness for the race.
3) See a good sports physiotherapist/massage therapist regularly.
If you are investing a considerable amount of time, money and effort into training for an endurance event, then it seems sensible to invest some time and money in the body that is going to get your through it. While not always easy to access, regular visits to a good, qualified sports physiotherapist/sports massage therapist can help address things before they become real problems. Endurance sports by their nature require muscles and joints to do the same thing over and over again, it would be surprising if we didn’t experience some wear and tear during the course of training. Simply running or riding without tightness and restriction can mean that your body is compensating less and working more in balance, reducing the risk of a pull or strain.
4) Eat well.
A lot endurance athletes have good appetites; for endurance events it can be hard to get in all the calories you need, especially if you are training more than once in any 24 hour period. Making sure you are adequately fuelled but not still digesting a heavy meal can be tricky, especially if you factor in work, kids and all the other things we try to squeeze into our lives. It can be really easy for example to not get a good recovery meal after the evening session with the club, by the time you get home and showered you may just feel like falling into bed.
It’s important to get the calories and micro-nutrients in to both fuel and recover from training so planning ahead can be key. Some athletes prefer to have more numerous smaller meals throughout the day so that they don’t impinge evening training but they are still getting all the food they need. Others prefer to have meals prepared in advance in the freezer/fridge for the week so they know they can easily access a nutritious meal when they finally get home.
It’s not just about calories out/calories in either, it’s really important to get a well-balance diet with decent amounts of protein to build and repair muscle damage from training, energy sources from carbohydrates (or fats if you choose) and the vitamins and minerals your body needs to function at its best. Some athletes I work with like to take a good multivitamin daily to ‘be on the safe side’ although my usual strategy is only take supplements if there is a clear deficit. Common deficits I have experienced with athletes and for myself are:
B12 – especially if you follow a vegan diet.
Iron – especially female runners who are still menstruating regularly. There is some evidence to suggest that in general ultra distance athletes need more iron due to the demands being placed on their bodies so if you are ‘borderline anaemic’ then it might be an idea to increase your iron intake.
Vitamin D – especially athletes in the Northern Hemisphere.
If you are feeling lack lustre it might be a good idea to go to your medical practitioner and ask for a blood test to check.
If you are unsure if you are eating enough calories, are worried about what you are eating, have lost a lot of weight in a short period of time or friends and family have expressed concern always contact a medical practitioner.
5) Work from where you are not where you think you should be.
Training doesn’t always go to plan; we have time off, we get sick or life just gets in the way. When this happens, we need to take a step back and work with the fitness we have now, not the fitness we feel we should have/could have had. Trying to work at a fitness level you no longer have is a good way to get burnt out and injured. Tools like TrainingPeaks and Strava are great ways of showing you your current fitness level and showing how quickly you are fatiguing. Whilst numbers aren’t everything, they can be a good place to decide how to move forward.
If you are coming back after some time off it can be useful to set a ‘base’ of training that feels manageable and is easy to manage; you can then build from this. For athletes coming back after a long time off I often start with 3-5 30 to 40 minute sessions followed by 1 longer session of 45 minutes to an hour depending on ability and discipline. We might do this for a good few weeks, perhaps adding a few minutes to the longer session only as we progress. This allows us to get back into the routine of training and to play around a bit with where rest days might fit best for the individual before starting any real build.
Speed in particular can be a risky addition after some time off. Starting off with longer faster sections or going to feel in a fartleck type session can work best to help re-introduce faster paced workouts gradually and safely. I often start with some work just above aerobic threshold (often called tempo or sweet spot) to see how people respond to this, as you can make good fitness gains with minimal risk in this zone.
6) Allow enough recovery between hard workouts.
When we go hard it hurts and there is significantly more muscular damage. The gains from the workout actually occur in the period of recovery afterwards so to get the full benefit of your hard work you need to recover properly. If we think of under recovery as the first step to over-training we can start to see how important it is to make sure we leave enough space between hard workouts to allow for some adaptation and recovery. This can vary from person to person and typically as we age we need more time to recover from the hard stuff so it’s important that you find the right amount of recovery for you. Some plans are designed to have blocks of quite hard days (ie tempo sessions followed by a long endurance session) with several easy recovery days afterwards.
If you like to ride your bike and run you may also find that the recovery from the bike is different from running.
It’s often a good idea to start small and build, so start by adding one harder session per week and then if that seems ok you can think about adding in another with at least 48 hours recovery between the two.
7) Stop before the niggle becomes a problem.
One of the worst injuries I have had was because I had a niggle in a track session of 200’s and I did not stop…it took me over a year to recover. Getting to know your body and what pain is just training pain and what pain is not right is really important. The premise of ‘if in doubt leave it out’ however is difficult to argue with – you have an awful lot to lose if you continue training when things aren’t right and a great deal to gain if you stop. Sometimes to an objective other (coach or trusted friend) can help you decide and or course if you are following point 3 in this article your sports massage therapist or physiotherapist will be well-equipped to tell you it if is safe for you to continue training.
8) Have regular recovery weeks.
Endurance athletes often love training, they love the routine and they love being out, often in all weathers and at all times. The hardest thing for them to do is to rest. Fitness however, is not linear, we can’t just keep stressing the body and expect it to get better and better, as noted previously in this article, it’s actually in the recovery period that your body adapts. So just as it’s important to have rest/easier days within each week, it’s also important to have weeks that are designed as easier weeks. Easy typically means half the volume of your harder weeks, which I prefer to think of in terms of time, or it might mean just going back to that base that you established at the start of your reintroduction into training. I typically plan an easier week for athletes every third or fourth week to give them time to adapt to the training and make sure they are fresh for the next cycle.
There are more than just physiological advantages to easy weeks – psychologically it can be good to know you have a few easier days ahead of you and sociologically it can mean perhaps spending a bit more time with family and friends.
9) Have some down time after your season/big race.
Whether you race a lot of just do one or two key races in a year, when it comes to the main event you are likely to give it everything you have. Psychologically and physiologically this is exhausting and you need to take time off to recover; whether you main event is 5 miles of 500 miles you have trained hard for it and gone hard, you need some serious time off to recover before thinking about the next season/big event. For long events, physically your body needs to recover. I usually recommend 2 to 4 weeks of complete down time at the end of a season with no real structured training and lots of time off. Ideally this can coincide with a holiday where you are resting from work too. For very long events you may need longer or need to come back very gradually.
10) Sleep well.
Your body and brain reset when you sleep. For athletes with busy lives it can be easy to squeeze in the training by compromising the sleep; the evidence suggests this is counter-productive. Most athletes needs 8 hours or more sleep in order to perform at their best so investing time in sleeping well is a really important part of training. If you want to learn more about sleep for endurance athletes you can check out my blog on this very subject here.