How to Run for a Decade Without Injury
This guest post is brought to you by mother (ultra) runner Andrea Brambila of metconsandmiles.com:
Andrea and I met via Instagram as she and I both have similar missions–to show women everywhere that “taking time out of your day to do something just for you isn’t something that is a luxury or even negotiable, it is something that is ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY.” Andrea got the running bug in her early 20s. After becoming a mom, she really needed that alone time to curb her anxiety and give her calm. And, she began running ultras.
All without getting injured. WHAT? Below, she shares with us her secrets for injury prevention:
How to Run for Ten Years without Ever Getting Hurt
Ask a group of 10 non-runners what they think about running, and it’s highly likely that at least 6 of them will say something along the lines of “it’s bad for your knees.” I know. Eye roll. But as much as we runners hate to admit it, running is a high impact activity that can result in injury. But overuse injuries and muscle strains are not an inevitability for avid runners. In fact, running has been an activity that I have enjoyed for over a decade without ever suffering a running-related injury. Today, I’m sharing the tools and methods I have utilized to run without injury for over 10 years.
Regular & Consistent Strength Training
I know, I know. Runners like to run, and not very many of us look forward to strength training after an hour of running. But running is hard on the body, and if you don’t have a strong core and leg muscles to carry you, you’re taking a huge risk.
Strength training allows your body to build the muscles that support your running. Your body is made up of tendons, joints, and ligaments that all connect to muscles and bones throughout your body. Certain types of running, like short sprints, can certainly help to build some of those muscles.
The unfortunate reality of relying on running to build muscles is that running will only strengthen a few of the muscular systems your body needs to run far. So what happens to those other muscles? Well, when they become fatigued, they stop working efficiently. And your body will start to utilize your larger, stronger muscles to compensate.
This is exactly how muscular imbalances happen, and over time these imbalances have a lot of consequences. For starters, running form and economy can suffer, resulting in performance plateaus, or even decreases. The more concerning consequence is an overuse injury. Runners are notoriously prone to these kinds of injuries, and a large portion could be prevented from incorporating strength working into a running program.
Personally, I’m just not someone who’s interested in going to a gym and self-programming a workout. I know I won’t do it consistently because I find it boring. Luckily, I’ve found something that I actually enjoy that focuses on strength training: CrossFit. Now, not everyone is going to be interested in CrossFit, and certainly, I’m not saying CrossFit is the only solution for runners who need to find a fun way to strength train.
There are so many possibilities these days. There are options like Orange Theory Fitness which is a boot camp style of mixed cardio, resistance bands, and dumbbells. There are actual boot camps popping up everywhere like Camp Gladiator. And there are tried and true programs like Pilates and Les Mills. All are great options.
What’s important is finding a strength program that is fun for you. Because if you’re not enjoying strength training, it’s not something you will keep prioritizing. So try a few different options, and see what’s appealing to you individually. If you’re interested in exploring different programs, I recommend looking into ClassPass.
ClassPass is a great subscription-based alternative to a gym membership. For one monthly cost, you are able to “drop-in” to hundreds of different gyms, classes, and boot camps. It doesn’t require a long commitment and is a fantastic option for finding what interests you without wasting a lot of money.
There are also so many great at-home strength workouts available on Pinterest. This comes in handy during those days where it’s hard to get out of the house and someone is napping. When my son was younger, I regularly pinned at-home workouts that only required dumbbells, and got in a 20-minute workout when I was able.
These days my son is older and has ditched the naps, but I’m traveling for work quite a bit more. So I find myself still utilizing some of these workouts in hotel gyms. There’s an amazing amount of resources out there to find strength-training inspiration, and a lot of workouts can be done in 20 minutes or less. Strength coach Caroline Geoghegan recently wrote a guest post 6 Simple Strength Training Moves for Runners that has amazing recommendations.
I also keep a few quick workouts I utilize when traveling posted on my Workouts Page. If CrossFit is an option you’ve been considering, please check out my recent post Is CrossFit For Runners? for a whole lot of great information.
Get Adequate Sleep
Running and strength training breakdown the muscles in our body on a micro-level. In order to repair these micro-injuries, a body needs rest. It rebuilds during sleep, allowing us to continue the cycle of exercising and gaining strength and endurance.
Unfortunately, sleep is not the easiest thing to come by when there are small humans competing for your precious time and bed. When my husband and I were in the throes of new parenthood, we basked in a lot of things, but sleep was clearly not one of them. We did what we could, but we just did not have a great sleeper on our hands.
In those times, I did my best to make sure I focused on the other areas of recovery that I could still achieve. I could still eat enough calories and drink an adequate amount of water. I could make time to stretch on the floor while my baby practiced holding his head upon his playmat. And I could listen to my body and treat it with kindness and grace when I needed to shorten a run or slow a pace during those early days.
If you find yourself in a season of life where sleep is hard to come by, don’t let lack of sleep keep you up at night. Simply focus on what you can do, and listen to what your body needs. Remember that every season is different, and try to be patient with your running as you adapt.
Now, I think it’s important to remember that with sleep, consistency is what is most important. So, if you happen to have a rough night where, say your 6-year-old climbs into your bed and spends the entire night lovingly scratching you with his toenails (hypothetically, of course), don’t fret. One night of bad sleep won’t derail you, even if it feels like you’ve been hit by a truck for the next 24 hours.
Build Mileage & Speed Reasonably
When I first fell in love with running, I wanted to hop straight into training for a half-marathon. One peek at a half-marathon training program snapped me back into reality real quick. The long runs started around 5 miles, and I couldn’t run 3 miles consistently.
A colleague suggested I consider training for a 10k before tackling the half-marathon distance, and this was the best piece of advice I’d received in a long time. I trained and ran a 10k, and afterward, I felt really confident about my ability to start a half-marathon program.
I enjoyed the 13-mile distance for a few years before increasing up to a full marathon. Several years later, I got really brave (and crazy) and trained and completed a 50k. For the majority of my running career, I have followed training plans developed by experts in running. All of these plans increased mileage gradually and incorporated cut back weeks regularly to allow recovery.
It’s so easy to start running, enjoy it, and then want to swing for the fences. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with setting out with a big goal. You definitely don’t need to run a 10k before you run a half-marathon, but what is important is that you give yourself an appropriate amount of time to train.
Trying to go from couch to 13.1 miles over 6 weeks is a tall order for anybody, and it’s likely to lead to some sort of injury. Bodies are resilient and amazingly flexible, but they still need time to adapt to a new routine. Running coaches and experts all over the globe recommend not increasing overall mileage more than 10% from one week to another when training.
And there’s a good reason for this. Building mileage slowly allows your body to adapt, recover, and continue performing. As tempting as it may be, heed the advice of those who have come before you. Keep your body healthy and happy by building slowly and giving yourself enough time to train properly.
Eat Enough Calories
The Female Athlete Triad & RED-S is a very relevant topic in the running world at the moment, and it is for good reason. Diet culture doesn’t make it easy for women to have a healthy relationship with food. Even more so after pregnancy and childbirth.
But if we want a long, healthy relationship with running, we need to have a healthy relationship with our bodies. And this means fueling for our activity level. I am certainly not exempt from the struggles mentioned above, and in order to ensure that I am eating enough, I find it helpful to track what I eat.
In order to have a long running career, you have to know yourself. I know that I am a person who can get quickly wrapped up in work and family life, and if I am not intentional about eating regularly and eating enough, it is highly likely I will unintentionally under eat.
So to combat this, I track what I eat in an app called MyFitnessPal. Typically, MyFitnessPal is a tracking platform that is utilized for dieting, but I have found it incredibly helpful to ensure I am eating enough carbs, protein, and fat to fuel my athletic goals. Tracking isn’t for everyone, and it certainly isn’t required, but it is important that you find a way to make sure you are fueling appropriately for your activity level.
For more information on assessing caloric needs and healthy feeling, I highly recommend reading Am I Eating Enough? from RunnersWorld. It’s a great article with several different resources for determining an appropriate amount of calories for your individual activity level.
Related Post: The Health Danger Facing Female Runners
Warming Up Before Runs & Stretching After
What does your pre- and post-run routine typically look like? It’s a question that comes up in running circles, and it’s one that you may struggle to answer. It’s an important consideration though because one of the quickest roads to injury is waking up in the morning, and literally running out the door.
As a mom, I know it can be hard to find time to warm up before runs. Especially if you are trying to get a run in before the family wakes up. But not warming up and neglecting a post-run stretch is a huge mistake.
Trying to run on “cold” muscles can increase the risk of muscle and ligament strain. A quick 5 minute dynamic warm-up is all it takes to prevent a potentially sidelining injury. David Roche recommends a 5-minute dynamic lunge warm up that I’ve found to be a simple and speedy way to wake up my legs and ensure my muscles are firing properly.
On days where I am running a harder workout, I add in some additional exercises to warm up my hips and glutes a little more. I tend to default to single-leg bridges and dynamic skipping to accomplish this.
Warming up before runs in incredibly important to preventing injury, but it is only part of the peri-run picture. Post-run stretching is just as essential to a running routine. We’ve all felt the immediate muscle soreness that greets us as we try to get off a couch after a hard run.
That soreness is a result of lactic acid build-up, and it’s not just uncomfortable, it’s a sign of tension in the soft tissue of the body. While some muscle soreness here and there is no cause for alarm, frequently neglecting a post-run stretch can result in prolonged muscle tension over a substantial period of time. What happens when tense muscles are then broken down during a run? Well, similar to weak muscles, the result can be poor running mechanics on one end of the spectrum and potential injury on the other.
Neither is a desirable outcome. Poor running mechanics due to mobility issues can definitely lead to an overuse injury. So, while it may seem cumbersome to devote time to warming up before a run and stretching after a run, it’s important that both are included in a running routine.
A quick tip from one busy mama to another: I tend to do a quick 5-minute stretch immediately after my runs, but a longer period of stretching later in the day when I have a bit more time. I’ve found that I have to find a way to double duty my stretching, and I’m usually able to accomplish this during conference calls at work.
Sure, I would probably look like an insane person if a coworker were to ever walk into my office, but it’s a risk I’m willing to take. I know stretching during meetings isn’t an option for everyone, but I do think there are opportunities to sneak in a 15 minute stretch for just about anyone.
When I’m struggling to find time or motivation to stretch, I turn to technology. There are some really great stretch routines available for free on YouTube. One of my favorite channels is “Yoga with Adriene.” She has a variety of videos available. Some are shorter than 10 minutes long, and she even has a playlist specifically for runners.
Everything I have done to prevent injury and stay healthy is well-known conventional wisdom. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to follow and implement. It takes a lot of mindfulness and intentionality to stay hydrated, eat well, take time to warm up and stretch, and get enough sleep. It also takes planning and some discipline. And it can probably seem overwhelming to a person who is just beginning to explore running. Hopefully, some of these resources will help with that.
Additionally, my recommendation for beginners is to tackle one piece of the injury prevention puzzle at a time. Spend a couple of weeks focusing on including a warm-up and post-run stretch. Once that has become a routine, start focusing on hydration and nutrition. So on and so forth. Focus on one area that seems most feasible, and continue to build those healthy habits over time. Before you know it, you’ll have a whole routine built up to support your running and those big goals we all want to chase.