As a soft tissue therapist with a particular focus on runners and triathletes, I’ve seen plenty of people with injuries and niggles on my couch, and when identifying the cause a common theme emerges: overload. Lots of runners are buoyed by the success of completing a 5K, then a 10K and before they know it, they’ve “accidentally” entered a half marathon, and can hear the siren call of a marathon in the distance.
Unfortunately, enthusiasm can override patience and, without structure and planning, it’s all too easy to run yourself into the ground and pick up an injury. I know—I see it all the time.
You can avoid this fate by a better understanding of how to use off-the-peg training plans, knowing when to deviate from the plan, and what role your lifestyle plays. If you take my advice, and that of coach Liz Yelling, it’s more likely running can be a lifelong activity, rather than being interrupted time and time again.
1. Get Yourself Ready To Start A Plan
A running training plan is a great way to build up carefully to a point where you’re able to complete the race distance. The problem is that a training plan, unless delivered by a coach, isn’t bespoke and doesn’t know your running history or your commitments outside of running. There’s a danger of launching into a plan not fully prepared physically for the increased demands.
There are a number of variables when training: distance, elevation, terrain, duration, frequency, type of run (think speed or tempo sessions) and strength work. To avoid injury you shouldn’t increase more than two of these at a time. When a client comes to me with a running injury or niggle such as runner’s knee or iliotibial band syndrome, we go through the list looking at what has changed in their training just before the onset of the complaint. Invariably they pushed too hard on too many factors in too short a space of time.
I like to get people to visualize a line graph with the above variables on it. Only two of the variables should be increasing at once. The others should stay constant.
For instance, if you choose a training plan for a future race that requires five runs a week and presently you manage three, then even before starting the plan you need to increase the frequency of runs over a couple of months so that you’re conditioned to that amount. Your frequency line will then be a constant once the plan starts and other variables change—typically distance and duration.
2. Know When To Take An Unscheduled Rest Day
Of course, we’re all individuals, so you could stick to the above advice and still find you are overloading your body. “To improve or build fitness, we have to load our bodies so they adapt and become stronger,” says Liz Yelling, a former Olympic marathon runner and now coach at Yelling Performance. “Every athlete has a different capacity for physical stress and their ability to tolerate physical loading. It’s about listening to your body, looking for signs like continued muscle aches and soreness, poor sleep, fatigue and mood changes—indications that you’re not recovering from training loads.”
If you notice any of those signs, it’s a good idea to miss a training session and dedicate the time to recovery, before injury or illness develops. For some people, it can feel scary to skip a session even for the purposes of recovery, as if deviating from the training plan means you won’t make the start line—but that’s not the case.
“If these signs dissipate when you back off, you know they’re related to doing too much too soon and/or poor-quality recovery,” says Yelling. “Recovery includes things like sleep, fueling and hydration, and resting.”
If you want help to improve your nutrition, Coach’s marathon training diet guide contains plenty of practical advice for runners of all distances.
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Anna Gardiner is a writer and soft-tissue therapist from the South West of England, with bylines in publications including Runner’s World, Women’s Health, Stylist, Bike Radar, Cycling Plus and others. Running is her first love, but she has embraced fitness activities like CrossFit and climbing and has triathlons and endurance events under her belt.