Running less can lead to more injuries related to running.
We are used to the idea that running causes running-specific injuries. Runners get runner’s knee (for example). Couch potatoes don’t. From the simple notion that running causes running injuries, it logically follows that the best way to prevent running injuries is to run less.
There are two problems with running less as a means to avoid running injuries. The first problem is that running not only causes injuries but also increases running fitness, which is the primary goal of most people who run. If your goal is to run a certain race distance faster than you ever have before, you can’t very well respond to every ache and pain by cutting back on your training. In order to run a certain race distance faster than you ever have before, you’re going to have to train harder than you ever have before.
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The second problem with running less to prevent running injuries is that, in addition to causing running injuries, running also prevents them. What? Let me explain with an analogy. Suppose you decide to take up the guitar. After your first practice session, your fingers will be sore from the unaccustomed friction between the delicate skin of your fingertips and the guitar strings. And if you were foolish enough to practice for eight hours on your first day, your fingertips would become a bloody mess. Playing the guitar causes blisters. But if instead you practice a little at a time consistently a few times per week, protective calluses will build on your fingertips. You may even get to the point eventually where you could practice for eight hours in one day without getting blisters. Playing the guitar prevents blisters.
Running is the same. The repetitive impact of running breaks down body tissues. But this very breakdown stimulates regenerative processes that heal the tissues and go beyond merely restoring them to make them stronger than they were before. Consequently, the person who has the lowest risk of getting injured during any given run is the runner who runs a lot consistently, and has therefore inured his bones, muscles and joints to the stress of repetitive impact.
This is now a proven fact. A couple years ago Luxembourgian researchers performed a study in which they tracked injury rates in a group of novice runners and a group of experienced runners over a period of 27 weeks. The incidence of running-related injuries was more than three times higher among novice runners during this period than among experienced runners: 16.8 injuries per 1,000 hours of running in the former group versus only 5.1 injuries per 1,000 hours of running in the later group. (Injuries were defined as symptoms that caused a runner to skip one or more planned runs.) The runners who ran the most were injured least per unit of time spent running.
There is, of course, a Catch-22 in all this. In order to become an experienced runner who doesn’t get injured much because you run a lot, you must first transition from a novice runner into an experienced runner by increasing your running precisely when you’re most susceptible to getting hurt. I wish I could give you a simple rule with which to navigate this minefield without incident, but alas, I cannot. You just have to muddle through it as best you can.
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The general approach that works best is one that balances persistence with patience and restraint. On the one hand, you need to be willing to cut back your running in response to “red flag” plan to prevent small problems from becoming big ones. On the other hand, you need to press for whatever gains you can get in terms of weekly running volume. If you ran 20 miles pain free last week, go for 22 this week. Naturally, everyone has their limits, but don’t let injuries determine how much you train. Let your goals decide.
In other words, gradually work your way toward running as much as necessary to achieve your goals. Any breakdowns you experience along the way are only temporary obstacles.
And you will experience injuries along the way. While running does prevent running injuries, the only means by which you can prevent running injuries completely is to stop running completely. And who wants to do that?
About The Author:
Matt Fitzgerald is the author of numerous books, including Racing Weight: How To Get Lean For Peak Performance (VeloPress, 2012). He is also a Training Intelligence Specialist for PEAR Sports. To learn more about Matt visit www.mattfitzgerald.org.