With up to 80% of runners being struck down by a running related injury in every 12 month period, it’s about time you took action to reduce your own injury risk.
All over the Internet you can find many ways to do this from Yoga for runners, a million different ways to stretch, mobility for runners, and of course everyone’s favourite, strength for runners.
Do you really have to do all of these? If not, which is best? How can you decide where to invest your time and money? Do you even need to invest any money because there are literally thousands of free posts and videos in all of the categories I mention above. Where do you start?
Stripping it back
Let me help by peeling it right back to bare bones – well, hopefully not literally, but you get my point. Let’s strip this thing down!
There is only one reason you get injured – your body’s tissues cannot handle the forces being applied to them. It actually is as simple as that… and as complicated as that!
Let me elaborate with a little more detail. Your physical tissues don’t know about miles or kilometres. They don’t know about trail runs, road runs or track sessions. They don’t even know about running. You could be swimming, cycling, rock climbing, digging out your allotment, skiing or rock climbing. All your physical tissues know about is mechanical force.
Mechanical force is simply the load that’s applied to your tissues (bone, muscle, connective tissue, skin, etc) at any given time. They can either withstand the force, or they can’t. If they can’t, they fail and injury occurs – simple.
When looking at mechanical force, we need to look at the three primary elements:
Intensity is the amount of force; it’s the level of loading or impact. For example, if you whack yourself on the thumb with a hammer (don’t do this by the way), there is a higher intensity than if you poke your thumb with your finger (unless you are mega strong of course).
When running, the level of intensity tends to be influenced by how efficient a runner you are, your bodyweight (although you’d be surprised on this one), the speed you are running at, and the surface you are running on including the incline/decline, your ability to control how you land and your reflexive stability (joint stability).
Frequency is the number of times the force is applied in any given period.
When running, you can look at frequency at both a micro and macro level. At a micro level, frequency is the number of steps you take in a minute. This is commonly known as your cadence, and most running watches will give you this number. Contrary to popular belief, there is no ideal cadence.
It was commonly thought that 180 beats per minute (or steps per minute to be more accurate) was the ideal, but this was misinterpreted from some track sessions of a very few elite athletes quite a few years ago. These days, most professionals and coaches accept that we find our own cadence to a certain extent, but under certain circumstances there is a range that appears to be more efficient in terms of performance and injury prevention.
Personally, I like to help people achieve between 176 spm and 186 spm as I’ve found that to be a good range to encourage efficient form while also encouraging good performance. Current research isn’t conclusive in terms of injury prevention and cadence, but this is often because the research itself is flawed. There is some evidence that if runners with a slower cadence, who are also experiencing pain in certain areas, increase their cadence they can reduce their pain. But higher quality research is required to provide us with the data we need in order to make better decisions around cadence and injury risk.
Anyway, back to the point. If you have a cadence of 176 spm, your tissues are exposed to the forces of running 176 times per minute. You may think then, that a lower cadence is good, but it’s a bit more complex than that as with a lower cadence your feet are on the ground for longer – see Duration for more on this. As a side note, this is why some evidence points to a higher cadence – feet are on the ground for less time.
When viewed at a macro level, frequency becomes about the number of runs per week, month, year etc. Not paying attention to this is a leading cause of overtraining that in turn can result in your tissues not being able to handle the forces involved.
Duration is over how long the forces are being applied – it’s a period of time. Like Frequency, duration can be viewed at both a micro and macro level.
At a micro level we need to consider how long your feet are on the ground with every step, known as ground contact time and is measured in milliseconds. Most efficient runners have a ground contact time of 220 ms or less, whereas most recreational runners tend to trend from 250 ms to 350 ms or higher. Now, this is still a fraction of a second, but that small difference in time exposes your tissues to the forces of running for that little bit longer, and it makes a difference to both injury risk and performance.
At a macro level, you can view duration as the time you are out on each run, and your overall time running in a week, month, year etc.
Why tissue fails
As you’ve just learned, mechanical force is applied to your tissues every time you go for a run. In fact, it’s applied all of the time in every moment of your life. It is present in an almost infinite combination of the three elements mentioned above, and how well your tissues are adapted to each combination determines whether they handle it or fail – or breach the threshold for your nervous system to be happy, and this then results in niggles and pain.
To reduce your injury risk you need to train your tissues to adapt to these forces – again, it’s as simple as that. There are ways to reduce the forces through improved efficiency (elements of technique for example), but there will always be forces your tissues need to handle.
To adapt, your tissues need two critical components. If these aren’t present, your injury risk increases. These are:
- Load: you need to overload your tissues for them to adapt
- Recovery: I always say that “the magic happens in the recovery”. During recovery, your tissues are rebuilding and reorganising so they can better handle the same overload of forces the next time they are exposed to them
It is crucial to understand though, that:
- If the overload is too much (any excessive combination of the elements of mechanical force), your injury risk increases
- If the overload is too little, no or minimal adaptation is forced
The skill is finding the balance between these two, combined with appropriate recovery, and in line with your goals.
How to use this info
Now you have a simple overview of why injuries occur, let’s have a brief look at how you can use this knowledge to reduce your own injury risk. Again, at a foundation level there are some easy things you can do:
- Frequency: This is probably one of the easiest areas to address, although not all runners actually want to take action here. When looking at frequency you need to look beyond just running. You need to look at what else you are doing in your life that’s exposing your tissues to overload. Remember, your tissues don’t have any concept of running, going to the gym or any other activity – all they know is mechanical force.
Increasing the number of runs per week increases your frequency of loading while also reducing potential recovery time.
Reviewing your overall loading activity, both running and non-running, and the amount and quality of your recovery can highlight areas where you are doing too much and not giving yourself appropriate time to adapt.
- Duration: Another area that’s relatively easy to review if you are allowing your tissues to adapt or not. Look at the length of your runs and the length of your recovery periods. Similar to above, the longer your runs, the less time you have for recovery and the more you expose your tissues to the mechanical forces of running.
It’s very common when building up to longer distance events that we increase our mileage. While your body has no physical sense of distance, increasing your mileage will generally result in an increase in the duration of your runs. This exposes your tissues to potential overloading for more time before they get some recovery.
Paying attention to any sudden increases, as well as looking at your overall duration of both running and non-running loading activities can help you identify if you are allowing your tissues to adapt or gradually wearing them down.
I have deliberately missed out Intensity here as it’s more complex to address. This is where we need to look at efficiency which brings with it a whole bunch of skills training and skill endurance – my main passion and the focus of most of what I teach.
For now, making sure you are reviewing both Frequency and Duration will help you to reduce your injury risk and improve your overall running performance.