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Too much running?

Ross Whiteside (Director of Clinical Services at John Honey Physiotherapy) offers some wise advice to our club members ...

The latest fashion in running seems to be runners pushing themselves to extreme lengths and ‘over-running’.  We’ve seen some amazing feats over the past few years from people like Eddie Izzard running 27 marathons in 27 days and Ben Smith completing his 401 Challenge. There are increasing numbers of runners who’ve been inspired by these achievements and want to recreate it themselves.  The latest one was the Ron Hill "run every day in October" challenge. I’m sure over the next year, someone will tell you about the next one that will no doubt carry some appeal.  It is highly likely, however, that attempting one of these challenges will cause you an injury.  Is it worth it?  If your goal is to keep running well in to your later years, then looking at the long game is crucial.

Most running injuries I see in my clinic are linked to running too much and not having the capacity to cope.  This can be due to increasing distance too quickly, increasing the pace too quickly or suddenly switching to hilly terrain and steep inclines.  In some cases, some runners will do all three at once.

Again, if you’re one of these then expect an injury.  The body is not a machine and is only able to cope with what it is capable of doing.  This may seem like an obvious statement but is often ignored because mentally a runner can feel they are capable of doing more.  A common mistake runners make is relying on how out of breath they are to judge what they are capable of doing.  However, the cardiovascular system (the heart and lungs) is a lot quicker at adapting than the musculoskeletal system (muscles, joints, bones, etc).  Quick gains are often noticed with breathing and heart rate.  That run you did 2 weeks ago can suddenly feel a lot easier 2 weeks later.  Adaptations to the musculoskeletal system take longer – more like 6 to 8 weeks.  This is where some runners come unstuck and can’t understand why they’re injured.  I’m commonly asked questions like, “How come my Achilles is so sore and now stops me running when the runs I’ve been doing felt so easy?”

I’ve even been guilty of this too.  In pursuit of my first sub-25 minute Park Run, in the space of 5 weeks, I went from running the 5km route in 29 minutes to 24 minutes.  My lungs and heart rate felt fine but the resultant shin splints injury I suffered stopped me running for the next 10 weeks.  It took a good 6 months before I was able to get close to running 5km in 25 minutes again.  

The body is capable of reacting to the demands placed on it, but it takes time.  When you run, there are high demands placed through certain muscle groups especially in the feet and legs.  There is a lot of stress placed through your weight bearing bones and joints.  Running ultimately causes trauma to the body, therefore the body needs adequate time to recover and the amount of trauma should be kept as minimal as possible.  It’s not to say you should not run at all because being unfit and unhealthy is likely to cause you more trauma. 

If the reason you run is to be healthy then you should take a healthy approach to running.  The commonly quoted advice is a 10% increase in mileage every week but because each runner is unique, I don’t like to advise on exact programmes of exercise. Factors such as age, weight, body type, and levels of fitness at the start are important in knowing how you should train and how much you should run. 

The best advice is to devise a training plan that encompasses the following:

3 to 4 runs per week (Don’t run every day)

This means at least 3 rest days per week

Pick the days so you don’t run those 3 or 4 runs on consecutive days

Plot your route and stick to it (commonly runners will add more distance to their runs whilst out running because they felt good whilst running)

Have a comprehensive stretching routine you do every day

Cross train – add another type of exercise to your training e.g. a strength and conditioning routine or swimming

Plot how you can increase your pace / distance / terrain gradually over a 6 week period.  Don’t do all three at once.  If distance is your goal then keep the other 2 factors the same.  If pace is your goal then keep the other 2 factors the same etc.  Do any of this gradually.  Only alter 1 of your weekly runs to start with and have at least 2 days rest before you run again to see how your body has coped.

Count a missed run as a missed run.  Don’t make up for missing a run by doubling your distance on the next run.  Exercise is like a course of antibiotics – missing a dose doesn’t mean you should take double when the next dose is due.

Listen to your body – if something doesn’t feel right or you start experiencing pain beyond a normal ache you may experience whilst running then stop.  If the pain doesn’t settle over the next few days then seek some professional advice from a physio or your GP.

Keep a log of your runs so you can reflect on how the run went and where you could build on the run in the future e.g. adding in a bigger incline, running certain parts a little quicker.

Take your time.  You can’t rush fitness.  If you’ve left it too late to reach a certain distance or pace before a race, don’t attempt to cram in more prior to the event.  Taking all your medication in one go won’t help you get better quicker.

If you are suffering with injuries that are stopping you running or from reaching your running goals then book in with one of our physios at John Honey Physiotherapy for an assessment.  We will be able to treat your injury and specifically advise on how you can adapt your training methods to reduce the risk of injury in the future.

Ross Whiteside MCSP