Breaking the Injury-I-Can't Cycle

“If you always do, what you’ve always done, you’ll always get, what you've always gotten.” 

As I was running the Wonderland Trail Half Marathon last weekend, I struggled with the idea of where my running was going.  I tend to have a bit of ADD when it comes to my own personal running - sometimes I think I want to be a fast half marathoner, sometimes it’s a Boston Qualifier, and in the same breath, I want to live solely on the trails, focusing on long distance ultras. Of course, all of these have very different training plans and overall running focuses, so being successful at all of these at the same time is very unlikely.

At the finish line of the race, I met up with friend, and uber motivational, ultra running trail badass, Muz.  He, of course, was just finishing up the marathon—a stopover run in between some epic 100-mile efforts. He finished third. No big deal.

He asked me what my plans were going forward and what I was looking into doing.  I, as per usual, had no specific race plans because I couldn’t focus on one SPECIFIC race coming up.  Well, maybe this. Maybe that. He suggested, in his usual Muz way, that I should definitely consider some epic 50-mile races. He’d be happy to show me some.

I, of course, immediately stated, “Oh! But I don’t run that many miles!” 

And, in his way, Muz nodded and said, “Well, yes, yes, this is something you must change.” And I immediately backed it up with more defense-isms of, “But I get hurt when I run over X miles a week!” 

“It’s not that you can’t. What are you doing when you get injured?” 

Well, that’s a damn good question.  What DO I do, to somehow always get injured? WHY is it that I find myself sitting out at race starts? It’s an extremely frustrating question for me, for sure, because as a coach myself, I find it much easier to subscribe to the “Do as I say, not as I do principle.” I know that I know what to do, so why don’t I do it? And why do I keep making the same mistakes? 

But, Muz was right. 50 miles a week isn’t the breaking point for me, it was what I changed in my own behaviors that made for the breaking. I walked away from the conversation trying to piece together in my own head what I was doing right.  And what I was doing wrong. 

This revelation (and subsequent blog post) works in perfect unison with Steve and Chris’ recent Running Rogue Podcast (#48!) where they talk about the various pillars of running success.  Again, it’s very much “Do as I say, not as I do,” as I listened to them discuss the ideas of building up slowly, listening to your body, and not trying to win every easy run. It all makes sense. It’s all sentiments that I would echo to my runners.  Are you getting enough recovery? Are you making time for the little things? How is your nutrition? All of these are important factors that I would ask others, but I wouldn’t take the time to ask myself.

So, with pen and paper, I sat down and looked back over my training logs.  And the over-eager runner mistakes are all too evident. And this doesn’t just apply to me! This applies to every runner out there that struggles with starting (and maintaining!) a training program. This is a lesson that's been hard for me to learn and a good one for those just starting!

Build up SLOWLY!

I’m sure that we all train with people who are invincible, unstoppable alien beings (Shout out to my favorite Jessica!) who PR race and after race and never seem to slow down. I have more friends than fingers who run upwards of 70 miles a week.  These are the people that I envy. These are the people that I convince myself that I am. But you know what I’m not? Invincible! You know what I can’t do?  Go out and run 70 mile weeks from a base of nothingness. Most people have a preconceived that these runners got there overnight. The buildup to high mileage takes time, and for some runners who have trained at that intensity before, the buildup after injury or a long time off, might look much differently than someone (like me!) who has never been there before.    

And herein lies the biggest issue.  I’m not going to lie — I have a severe case of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out, for those out of the lingo!) and an even bigger problem with saying no to friends. “Hey Ashley - wanna run with me today?” YES!  “Hey Ashley, wanna run my 20 miler with me this weekend?” YUP! 

My biggest plan for this training cycle is to keep it low, slow, and work on steadily increasing my mileage, NOT taking big jumps to get back to “where I was.” I’ve been steadily maintaining weeks of about 35-40 miles a week and will work to inch my way into the upper 40s.  

You don’t win the warmup; you don’t PR the easy run!

Subsequently, I’m guilty of running too hard, most days. If left to my own devices, I stick my headphones in, I run down the street, and suddenly I’m Shalane Flanagan in the final stretch of the New York City marathon, cruising in, fist pumping a “Fuck Yes!” for the whole crowd to see. Easy days are easy; that’s the motto. And sometimes, easy might be flying down the street, but more often than not, it isn’t.  Low and slow. 

Runner confession: I don’t like the slow runs; I don’t like the easy runs that feel hard on tired legs.  There are days when I tell myself it’s easier to sit that one out, focus on something else for the day.  But I know that those days are the key to building my mileage and maintaining that fitness.  Without the easy days, there are no hard days.  

Runner confession #2:  I secretly hate Strava. I know. I know. I know. BLASPHEMY! 

Here is why I love Strava - I can look back at all my data, all my weeks of training and statistically analyze each run, each split, my average pace, heart rate, etc.  Your friends can give you kudos. It’s a warm and fuzzy online forum for running!  

Here is why I hate Stava:

“Hey Ashley - I saw you were doing repeats!  ARE YOU TRAINING FOR A MARATHON?!”

“Hey Ashley. You ran that easy run pretty fast.” 

“Hey Ashley. You ran an awful lot of miles last week.” or conversely, “Ashley - you’re slacking.  Wasn’t your goal to run more miles?” 

“Hey Ashley. That workout didn’t go so well.  Isn’t your MGP faster than that?” WHAT’S WRONG?! ARE YOU INJURED?

In a world where social media is king, Strava feels to me like one big social magnifying glass, that only helps to encourage me to run hard and fast every run to somehow measure up to what everyone else’s definition of a good run is.  Maybe you had a good workout, maybe you didn’t. But what you had on that specific day is only a small fraction of the entire training cycle.  If I let one bad run or bad workout set the tone for my entire training cycle, well, I’m setting myself up for failure.  And well-meaning and inquisitive friends, while well-meaning and inquisitive, do not take the place of your coach (or your own head) in what is working well for you. 

And you know what? Sometimes data isn't key. Wear your watch or don't. Wear your watch, but don't look at it.  Run on effort. Run on feel.  One of my most successful training cycles, I ran my easy runs based on time, not on miles.  It changes the way you approach the run.  Try it!  It might even work for you! 

Maintain the little things so they don’t become the big things

Consistency is key. And the way to running fitness is through running.  That’s been a long established fact.  Want to be good at running? Run more. Plain and simple.  But this idea comes back to my original idea of embracing your weaknesses.

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For me? Strength training is key. When I look back at my training cycles, I can see one glaring flaw.  When I start to increase my mileage, I reduce my strength training.  And the logic is simple - there is a limited time in my day for the things that I want to do. So, I want to increase my mileage? Well, I simply sacrifice my strength training.  And here is why that is wrong. 

Everyone is built differently. Go back to my original statement about those friends who are invincible.  The friends that just run all the time and do no ancillary work.  Does it work for them? Sure.  Now look at yourself. Are you a clone of them? No. 

For me, strength training and the work that I put in when I’m not running is just as crucial to my success as any time spent running. Maintaining a strong core and posterior chain (your glutes, hamstrings, etc), means that I run more efficiently, I run more evenly, and I can maintain a higher workload.  Runners are notoriously weak in many planes of motion and one of the reasons is because running is such a repetitive motion.  Why does one mile on the trail seem like an eternity compared to the road? Because you’re working and challenging your muscles in ways that they are not used to working!  

When tired and fatigued, the body will break down at the points that are the weakest.  Ever had a bad race and when you finish your hip flexors hurt, your back and shoulders are a mess, or your IT bands feel like they’re on fire? This is your body’s way of pointing out to you your weakest points. And maybe it doesn’t always lead to injury.  For some people, it doesn’t, but it can lead to places for improvement. 

So mix it up!  A lot of running programs will add in cross training as an essential part of the process. Find something you like, stick with it, and make sure to keep it a consistent part of your running process. Focus on the exercises that help build running strength.  I promise you all the elite runners  (check out Shalane’s & Meb’s!) work strength training into their programs!  

I largely credit Eastside Austin Elite (RIP, sniff!) and my new fitness family at Dane's Body Shop for keeping me strong, fit, and healthy! This doesn't mean that you have to immediately jump into a strength and conditioning program.  Instead, focus on runner-specific exercises, such as squats and lunges, to strengthen leg muscles. 

Recovery is king

Recovery means a lot of different things.  But, just like keeping cross-training pertinent in your training plan, so is keeping an active recovery plan.  Again, it’s so very easy to be in a place with your training where everything is feeling good, nothing hurts, and you’re crushing workouts. I can skip foam rolling, right? WRONG.

Staying consistent with your post-run recovery is even more important when you’re feeling good.  Keep the good train rolling and stick with it. 

Invest is some good quality equipment. My personal favorite is the Grid Roller from Triggerpoint, as the best all-around roller option. If you’re looking to spend a little more and get the whole kit, you really can’t beat this 6-piece set from Triggerpoint. It’s got everything you could need from quads to calves to feet. (Or it’s a bit cheaper here at Amazon!)

But recovery isn’t limited to just the post-run foam roll.  There’s also nutrition to consider.  What you put into your body the day before and after your runs is just as important as anything else you eat all week.  The idea of “calories in, calories out” sounds great when you’re looking to incorporate running so as to lose those love handles. But a 20-mile long run doesn’t mean you “earned” yourself a triple-patty, extra queso, heart-attack burger stack from some local greasy restaurant.  Eat good quality, whole foods. Invest in your health by replenishing the nutrients that you lost during your run.  Focus on food being an integral part of your running, not just something that you get as a reward for running far.

And lastly, SLEEP!  I can’t say this enough. When all things are going great, repeated nights of horrible sleep can wreck your metabolism and your recovery. Get good sleep! That doesn’t mean knock yourself out with alcohol or some over-the-counter sleep medicine. It means going to bed earlier and being mindful of your sleep hygiene. 

One easy habit to add to your nightly routine is to let yourself unwind before bed. That means no television, no phone, no digital devices.  Take some time to yourself instead.  Take a long bath (or shower!), go on a walk, read a book. But allow yourself to disconnect from the digital world and let your brain naturally wind down.  Taking some time to ease your mind will allow you to fall asleep quicker/easier and have a more restful sleep. And a better night’s rest means that you wake the next morning ready to crush the workout, without having to rely on endless cups of coffee to get started. 

And remember: 

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It's not that you CAN'T... you have to learn HOW. 

Comparison is the thief of joy. Looking around at others as a benchmark on how well YOU are doing is futile.  Each individual is on their own plan, with their own finish line. Nothing is truly impossible if you're willing to work at it.  As a friend once told me, "You have as many hours in the day as Martin Luther King, Hellen Keller, or Beyonce." If time is your inconsistency, commit to planning a schedule and sticking to it. Not enough time in the mornings? Break your run into two parts.  If you are like me, and can see the errors in your past training ways, start breaking those bad habits today.  

If you know what you need to do, why aren't you doing it? 

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