running injuries: Eliminate these training errors
and reduce your chances of getting hurt.
by Raphael Brandon for sports
It is well accepted
that one major cause of distance running injuries
are training errors committed by the athlete
concerned. In one study, James and colleagues (1978)
were expecting to show that anatomical and
biomechanical factors were the most likely causes of
running injuries. However, contrary to their
hypothesis, they found that some 60 per cent of the
running injuries in their survey were due to
training errors. Other researchers such as Brody
(1980) and Clement and colleagues (1981) confirm
that training errors are a highly significant, if
not the most common cause of running injuries.
If you commit a training error, it doesn't mean that
you are doing the wrong type of training. Instead,
training errors are generally associated with high
volumes or intensities of training, or any rapid
changes in training. This may mean that you are
doing the right type of training but just too much
of it, or too much training too soon. For example,
two common training errors athletes commit are
periods of high mileage without easy days in
between, and sudden major increases in mileage.
Understanding why training errors cause injury
becomes obvious when you think about what happens to
your body when you train. During a training run the
bones, joints and muscles in the legs and low back
are stressed and this causes damage. Thus a recovery
period must follow the training. During the
recovery, the damage is repaired. In time, regular
training combined with adequate rest results in what
is called 'supercompensation'.
With supercompensation, the body responds to the
stress by growing stronger. This happens to all the
bones, ligaments, tendons and muscles. Once
stronger, the bones and joints can handle greater
stress, absorb more shock, and the muscles can act
more efficiently. However, if you continue with high
mileage training day after day, there is never
sufficient recovery. In time, instead of growing
stronger, your body becomes permanently weakened and
an injury will result.
The same is true if you suddenly hike up your
mileage. Your body is not currently conditioned for
the higher levels of stress and so injury results.
The bones, ligaments, tendons and muscles are only
ever as strong as their current training level. They
cannot suddenly develop extra strength as an
immediate response to training increases.
Supercompensation is a long-term progressive
adaptation, not a short-term acute reaction.
Coaches and athletes are well aware that they have
to get a positive training effect in muscular
strength, anaerobic metabolism and aerobic
metabolism. What they too often forget is that
positive training effects must also occur in bones,
ligaments and tendons if the athlete is to train
Avoiding these two common training errors -
prolonged high mileage and sudden mileage increases
- is a major priority for any athlete. The first
step in ironing out these errors is careful planning
of training. Athletes must never train on a
willy-nilly, do-what-they-feel-like basis They
should always plan every element of their training,
including rest days. Then they must ensure that the
plan is followed, avoiding extra training just
because things happen to be going well.
Many athletes make the mistake of planning their
high-quality running sessions, but make up the
'steady runs' element of their training as they go
along. This is wrong. For each month, you should
plan your training in every detail. Any planned
increases in mileage should never be greater than 10
per cent a week. A full rest day is recommended once
a week or every other week. Easy days are
recommended every three days.
Slow and steady does it
The crucial underlying principle in correct planning
is for slow and steady progression. The starting
point is to work out what level of mileage you can
currently train at without becoming injured. Then
you must plan a slow progression over a period of
months up to the mileage level you would like to be
training at. As well as being the correct practice
for injury prevention, this long, slow progression
of training is also the key to improved performance.
Common sense says that an athlete who attempts an
80-miles-a-week regime but regularly takes weeks off
through injury will not be as fit as the athlete who
starts on 40 miles a week, slowly builds up 60 and
Prolonged high mileage and sudden increases in
mileage are not the only kinds of training errors.
In fact, just about any rapid change in any aspect
of training could be classed as a training error and
likely to cause injury.
A sudden addition of high-intensity training is
another common training error. This could be the
situation when, say, you have spent months on steady
mileage training and then decide to include fast
anaerobic interval sessions. Again, the same
principle applies. The body has not yet been trained
to cope with running at a fast pace, with the higher
muscle forces and impact forces that result from
increased speed. The muscles tire quickly and so
extra strain is placed on the bones and joints.
Again, slow and planned progressions are the way to
avoid this training error. A good way to start with
higher intensity sessions is with a fartlek workout
once a week (this involves including fast sessions
in your run when you feel like it, taking easy
sections for recovery). After a few weeks of fartlek
runs you can then add an interval session at 3K
pace. For example, start with an 8-10 x 400m with 60
secs recovery, building up to 25 x 400m. Once used
to this pace, you can attempt faster paced sessions
to train the anaerobic system.
Another example of a training error is a sudden
change in running surface. Hard surfaces, such as
roads, require high impact forces to be absorbed.
Obviously you must be able to cope with this.
However, at the same time hard surfaces are true and
do not dampen the propulsive forces. Conversely,
soft, off-road terrains attenuate impact forces,
thus lessening the need to absorb shock, but dampen
the propulsive forces. This means you may have to
change your neuromuscular coordination to adapt.
If you train regularly on hard surfaces and then
switch to training on soft surfaces, or you do a
one-off cross-country race, problems may occur due
to the different stress on the muscles. And vice
versa: if you regularly train on soft terrain and
then switch to hard surfaces, you will suffer
because you cannot cope with the high impact forces.
Artificial surfaces also have unique properties that
you must be used to coping with. If athletes are to
train or race on different surfaces then they must
plan in advance the switch in surface and build up
the training on the new surface slowly.
Compounding the problem
The worst kind of training errors are compound rapid
changes. The classic compound change that runners
make is to spend all winter doing steady running on
the road in trainers and then switch to fast
training on the track, in spikes, for the summer
season. Here there are three variables that have
suddenly been changes: the intensity of the running
sessions, the surface and the shoe. With spikes
there is lower heel lift and less support. This
means there is greater dorsi flexion and potentially
more pronation. This will place greater stress on
the muscles in the lower leg.
This change in biomechanics caused by the shoes,
along with the higher impact forces from the fast
speeds and different muscle recruitment required for
the spongy nature of the track is often too much for
the athlete and injury will result. However, if you
include some speed training on the track, in spikes,
throughout the whole training year, you will
drastically reduce injury risks in the spring when
you want to increases intensities for track racing.
As long as you are used to, and can cope with, a
variety of surfaces or shoes then that is fine.
Remember, it is rapid changes that have to be
eliminated, not necessarily variety.
The training errors I've mentioned are typical of
those committed by distance runners. But not just by
them. Coaches and athletes of all events and sports
must realise that prolonged high-intensity training,
prolonged high volumes of training or any kind of
rapid change in any aspect of training should be
seen as a training error. This is a vital principle
to understand. It should be followed in any training
programme or potential improvement will only be
curtailed by injury.
Clearly, then, it is very important for injury
prevention to avoid training errors. With careful
planning and slow progressions, athletes should be
able to avoid the kinds of errors I've discussed.
But a word of warning: because elite performance
requires high mileage and high-intensity training,
athletes are still at risk simply from hard
training. Some may be able to withstand it; others
may need to reduce their training to remain
injury-free. Only then will they reap the benefits
of uninterrupted training. To underline the point,
here is a telling comment from Derek Clayton, the
former world-class marathon runner:
I had my competitive career to run over again, I
would change some of my attitudes to injuries. I
would show them more respect. Because, after all,
injuries weren't some unknown barrier I was trying
to break through. Injuries were simply my body
telling me that something wrong was happening'.