I watched the 3rd London marathon (1983), when Mike Gratton was the winner. I remember the interviewer speaking to Mike, about his winning being a “surprise”, much to Mike’s annoyance. His reply was that his performance wasn’t extraordinary for him but was just ‘his level’, and that for the last two years he had been injury free, unlike previous years. What Mike had demonstrated that whatever your performance level, you will improve, no matter what age, if you can just keep running, and that injury is what holds back your improvement.
Injuries It’s very frustrating being injured and most of us have at some time or other had to change our running / training plans due to an ache or pain somewhere. I have been fortunate (or well-prepared?) that during over 30 years of endurance running, I have had only three issues to “manage”, as I recall, and one of those was due to changing my running technique.
Injuries for endurance runners are usually chronic, i.e. due to a progressive issue (one of mine was when training for a half marathon and perhaps increasing my long run mileage too quickly due to starting the plan too late), but occasionally acute. The latter are usually either due to misfortune, e.g. twisting an ankle running off road and hitting a hole, or are due to overdoing it, usually because of a poor warm-up, i.e. none or inappropriate for what was about to follow. Chronic injuries are usually due to overload, i.e. increasing the training load too much or not giving the body time to recover from the previous session, race, etc (my pulled hamstring was from trying to achieve a 5 mile PB too soon after a previous attempt)[see ‘When to Train’, below]. Many of them are from running with poor technique, eventually resulting injury as the body can no longer compensate fully for the technique issue, e.g. a weak core causing too much upper body rotation that can eventually result in ankle or knee issues, as they have to accommodate too much rotational force. My change in technique (heel striker to mid-foot ‘lander’) was equivalent to poor technique as many of my muscles and tendons had to adjust to a different range of movement and loading.
So how do we keep running and avoid getting injured? Most of you will have heard of the ’80/20 rule’, about how most of your training should be slow steady running and only a small fraction should be done at speed. Jack Daniels, the running guru, not the Bourbon distiller, states there’s only two speeds endurance runners should be running at : slow/steady and around race pace, just below - the so-called “tempo run”, and repetitions done at faster than race speed but over shorter distances with recovery, to enable the next effort to be done again at above race pace. So the foundation for endurance running is long(ish) slow running and a bit of fast running. But here’s the rub, whilst 80% is a high percentage, 20% is still a significant amount. If one trains for 5 hours a week, an example so I can do the maths easily not a recommendation, then 80% is 4 hours but 20% is one hour. One hour of fast running is quite a lot. If you did it all as tempo, you would be running quite far, possibly further than your race distance, so typically tempo runs are shorter than your race distance. So usually, this speed work is split into two : half tempo and half repetitions. NB remembering my earlier comment about acute injuries from inadequate warm-ups, one can probably get away with doing not much of a warm up for a long steady run, but one must warm-up properly for a speed session, else an injury, such as a pulled muscle, is a real risk.
So what part of our running training reduces the risk of injury. The answer is all of it and not doing any part of it increases the risk of getting injured. Just running slowly builds a solid fitness level, but after the initial few weeks, there’s no extra load on the body to encourage the muscles, and tendons to become stronger, and eventually the body is likely to get injured from overload.
I watch quite a few reels on Instagram looking for interesting training advice and almost daily I get some reel advertising a method or product or program one can buy to bulletproof your knees ankles, calves, etc. The fact there are so many is because there’s a huge demand from runners who are, or have been, injured, or who fear it. There are no silver bullets but the solution to resisting injury is really straightforward, you don’t need to pay for, and in fact the Club provides it weekly for free : the Tuesday evening training session. They are called “intervals” because they involve running at speed with recoveries. These sessions are coached by a qualified and competent coach, who can help identify technique improvements for individuals. They provide efforts that not only improve your fitness, more than just running steady (there’s research that demonstrates this) but they also build muscular strength and make ones tendons more resistant to overload. How - by running at speed you have to turn your legs over faster, or lengthen your stride length, or both. This activity puts a load on the fibres in the muscles and tendons that is greater than normal resulting in damage, so called micro-tears. The body repairs this damage, when you stop running, which is why you need sufficient recovery, but it doesn’t just restore the previous level of strength in the fibres, but actually through fibre growth, increases your strength (“supercompensation” - see ‘When to Train’, below), so you can now run quicker or for longer, before muscular fatigue kicks in. The sessions also improve your efficiency your body can process glycogen, your body’s fuel, (usually seen as an increase in your VO2 max - see Jack Daniel’s book for explanation) and so you can go further or faster without feeling quite as strained.
The coaches can also provide guidance on training for major running events, e.g. running a marathon, ensuring the plan is appropriate for the experience of the runner and their ability.
When to train?
The figure shows how the body responds to a workout (training run, etc.) with time. You should only train when your body is at or above the horizontal dotted line.
If you train too frequently, or throw some speedwork into what should be a steady run, you could be loading the body up before it has recovered from last session. The latter would put you at point A.
If you start your run when still feeling tired you are probably around point B, and in effect you are starting pre-fatigued so you will be lowering the dotted line. Training pre-fatigued increases risk of injury.
The best time to train is point C when your body has fully adapted to the previous training activity, although anywhere above the line, e.g. point D is good.
So whatever your motivation is for running, if you want to be able to keep running, ensure you do regular and frequent interval sessions. Yes, you can do this on your own, but it’s much more fun and supportive to do it with others. I know from my own experience that I would never have achieved my 5k, 10k and half marathon PBs in the one year, if I hadn’t been training each Tuesday evening with Martin Croucher, Bryan Reid and Stephen Elverd, banging out those coach-designed session repetitions like a metronome.
NB We all broke 20, 40 and 90 minutes respectively that year. Well done, lads.