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Easing back into training after an injury

Something like 80% of runners suffer some kind of injury each year. Most of these are pretty minor, but sometimes they can take us out of commission for more than a few days. Hopefully this doesn’t happen to you, but if it does, be careful when you start easing back into your normal training routine. Here’s the general guidelines I give to athletes when they ask me about how to get back to where they want to be without getting hurt again.

Step 1: identify the root cause of the injury and address it

The first thing we have to do if we suffer an injury is identify the root cause of it. Sometimes it’s something pretty obvious like a bad ankle sprain while trail running. Most of the time though it’s some kind of overuse injury. That means that the root cause of the problem is either a lack of recovery, poor biomechanics, muscle imbalances, or some combination of these. Identifying the root cause is important because it allows us to take a smarter approach to training in the future. It’s okay to make a mistake as long as we learn from it. Once we identify the root cause of the injury, we can address it so that it doesn’t happen again. Sometimes that means reworking our warm up, sometimes it means changing our nutrition so our bodies have the resources necessary to recover from workouts, sometimes it means making sure we’re getting enough sleep. Each problem has its own root cause, and therefore has its own solution. Suffering the same overuse injury more than once is a pretty good indication that we’re just slow learners and aren’t actually addressing the fundamental problem. Just resting until we feel better is a surefire way to enjoy the same setbacks over and over again. We may need to take some time off if we really did ourselves in, but we also need to address the root cause of the problem to begin with.

Step 2: Start at a lower volume and intensity than “normal”

Sometimes recovery requires us to back off the volume, or take some time off to allow an injury to recover. The important part to remember is that while our cardiovascular system will probably be just fine after a few days back at the grind, the structural bits (including the tissues that were damaged) aren’t used to the same work load that we’re mentally used to. Your body is deconditioned and you’ll probably get hurt again if you just jump right back into training. If you are changing your mechanics or adding in some different cross training, recognize that those are new stresses on your body and those particular muscles won’t be able to do the “normal” amount of volume and intensity that you’re used to. It’s actually similar to starting training all over again if you are drastically changing your mechanics or adding new cross training in. So pay attention to the overall workload, not just the mileage, so you can account for the extra effort your body is putting out during the cross-training you’re hopefully adding to the mix to ensure you don’t suffer the same injury again.

New cross-training is HARD. Here you can see Steven (as well as Jess and Sarah in the mirror) struggling with some new exercises. And these guys were BEASTS with their normal workouts!

Step 3: Increase training volume slowly

While it can be tempting to jump your mileage back up to “normal” over a relatively short period of a week or two when you start feeling better, don’t forget that you’re body is (hopefully) moving and operating differently than it was last time. This means we should probably follow the 10% rule, meaning we shouldn’t increase the overall training load by more than 10% from one week to the next. Note that this is overall training volume, so not just the miles we’re putting in, but the cross-training as well as the intensity of each particular workout. One of the best ways to do this is to track the overall time spent exercising, and using that in conjunction with the effort level of each workout. Also, don’t forget to take an actual recovery week every 3-4 weeks as you’re building that volume back up. Coach Vigil is known for his philosophy of there being no such thing as over-training, only under-recovery. The lack of priority most endurance athletes place on recovery is probably the leading cause of this high rate of overuse injuries.

Step 4: Wait to add higher intensity training

Don't add it to the schedule until you’re base volume is stabilized and you’re confident that the new cross training/technique you’re using is ready for it. The other part of this is that our bodies can only handle a certain total workload, and if we’re putting in higher intensity sessions it’s going to burn through our workout budget in a hurry. As endurance athletes, we should almost always have the majority of our training volume being lower intensity/easy workouts as we work on developing that aerobic engine. The lower intensity work is also good for while we are making a recovery as it is harder to demand too much out of the spot that was previously hurt. There is something to be said for the rule of thumb that “hard” work shouldn’t be more than 20% of the total weekly volume. If we’re in the process of building that volume back up, then it’s pretty easy to hit that cap, especially when you consider the new biomechanical and cross-training we’ve hopefully added in should probably be in that “hard” work category.

Step 5: Learn to be a better listener

We normally get some kind of feedback from our bodies when overuse injuries are just getting started. As endurance athletes, we tend to be pretty good at overriding these messages because we need to be able to in order to do the events we do. But there is a difference between overriding those signals from our body and simply ignoring them. I often refer to this as the difference between pain and discomfort. Discomfort is fine, that’s just the body complaining about the amount we’re demanding from it right now. Pain is our body telling us something is wrong. By learning to be a better listener in the future, maybe we can avoid another overuse injury and address the root cause of it before it takes us out of commission.

Step 6: Follow Lieutenant Dan’s two rules

Lieutenant Dan's two rules are 1) Change your socks, and 2) Don’t do anything stupid. No matter how much we want to get back to those longer long runs or harder interval workouts, we can’t forget that the longer we’re out of commission the longer it’s going to take to get back to being our normal training levels. If we rolled our ankle and have to take a couple of days off, it’s probably not going to impact our ability to get back to training. But if we end up taking more than two weeks off, our bodies have started becoming deconditioned. We simply haven’t experienced the strains we normally do and have starting adapting to the new work load. The good news is that it is easier to get back to a level of fitness we were at than it is to get there in the first place. But we do have to respect the fact that we actually need to go through the process of getting fitter again. One of the biggest reasons endurance athletes get hurt so frequently is we jump back into “normal” training too fast and our body isn’t ready for it, producing a cycle of injury that doesn’t actually help us get faster or even allow us to enjoy training.

Lt. Dan telling Forest and Bubba the two rules. Note: I don't own the rights to this picture, but I hope that those who do will recognize that I'm using it to illustrate a point to help folks.

So if you’re feeling beat up, let’s be smart about the comeback. Most injuries suffered by endurance athletes are overuse injuries. Identify the root cause of the problem and address that. Then allow your body the time it needs to actually adapt to any new cross-training and biomechanics that you’re demanding from it. This means we’ll be starting back at a lower than “normal” training volume, but that’s okay. Build it slowly, using your current fitness level, and don’t forget to take a recovery week every 3-4 weeks. It may be a longer road that we like to get back from being hurt, but the goal is to not have the same thing happen again in the future. As Einstein said, doing the same thing and expecting different results is the definition of insanity. Train smart!

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