This is an excerpt from Mastering Running by Cathy Utzschneider.
Injuries are the bane of runners, their unwanted companions. Both younger and older runners get injured. If you have friends who are runners, chances are you know someone who is injured. One metanalysis that presented findings from many studies on the incidence of injury among runners reported that between 37 and 56 percent of all runners are injured every year (van Mechelen 1992). Masters runners are more susceptible to injuries than open runners (McKean et al. 2006). Wanting to seize the moment before the aging process interferes more with their performance, masters may forget sometimes that their flexibility and shock-absorbing capacity are not what they used to be.
As common as injuries are, they are challenging. First, runners are so afraid of injuries that they’ll often deny them until the pain becomes so uncomfortable that they can’t run. Often runners will wait to tell me for the first time about a discomfort they’ve been feeling for weeks. Determining their cause and diagnosing them are often more questions of art than science. Injuries often arrive suddenly from a unique combination of factors. It’s a challenge to figure out what caused them and why they occurred at that time. Solving an injury mystery involves time, sometimes several opinions from different specialists, often tests (MRIs, X-rays, and so on), and trust in your own judgment. Different kinds of specialists often have different opinions on what the injury is and why it happened.
Listening to Your Body
Although it’s obvious that you should listen to your body, sometimes it’s not easy. It’s difficult to maintain perspective on yourself, and listening to your body requires just that. There’s no one else to confirm how you feel. Feel a discomfort, and you wonder whether you’re imagining something. You focus intently on listening, but you may not want to hear. Hearing can lead to bad news: Yes, there is something wrong!
If you think you feel pain, track it immediately in a daily logbook on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being awareness and 5 being too painful to run and time to see the doctor. You’ll know whether the pain is lessening or increasing. As soon as you feel even an awareness (a 1) in the same place for three days in a row, take off the next two days and cross-train. You’ll stay in great shape, and save yourself a lot of time and needless pain in the future. The sooner you have the discipline to stop running - and it takes more discipline to stop than to continue - the less likely you are to aggravate the injury and the sooner you’ll be back to running.
Cross-Training: Part of the Plan
Cross-training for running - participating in alternative forms of exercise such as biking, aquarunning, swimming, cross-country skiing, rowing - should be part of your plan whether or not you’re injured. If you think from the beginning of your training that cross-training will be part of your success, and that it should be part of your plan to incorporate variety and build balance into your training, you’ll be able to turn easily and confidently to cross-training when you’re injured.
If you have to stop running, choose the cross-training activity that is most available, most similar to the specific movement of running, and the most "friendly" given your injury. Have plantar fasciitis? Try pool running. Pulled your hamstring? Try swimming or biking. Try various kinds of exercise until you find one you like. Many runners I coach have found great success with deep-water pool running. One year I trained three U.S. Olympic Trials marathon qualifiers with aquarunning for three months until the last month before the marathon, when they were able to begin running again. In the Trials, they performed as well as their counterparts who had not been injured. In terms of how long each cross-training workout should last, I generally recommend that you spend as much time cross-training as you would running.
Yoga can help prevent injuries because it complements running and masters running in particular. Whereas running works in one direction with high impact, yoga works muscles in all directions without stress. While running strengthens muscles in the lower body, yoga builds overall body strength. Flexibility is not something running builds, but something yoga does. Many masters runners who practice yoga find their stride lengthens. Whereas racing can be intense, yoga encourages focus and relaxing under pressure.
The challenge for many masters is determining which kind of yoga you should practice and how you can fit it into your schedule. Do you take a class or practice it at home? If you can’t find a class, I recommend a 10- to 15-minute practice at home two or three times a week. My favorite yoga routine involves a relaxation and then an abridged version of a sun salutation with eight poses that stretch, strengthen, and relax all muscles, including your back, quadriceps, hamstrings, and upper body. You can find this routine in chapter 6.
Low-impact machines like a cross-country ski machine, Arc Trainer, rowing machine, bicycle, and elliptical trainer are among cross-training equipment that help prevent injury and are therefore wise options to incorporate into your routine training. Some high-end physical therapy facilities also offer use of an excellent but expensive machine, the Alter-G antigravity treadmill, which allows you to run at 20 to 100 percent of your actual body weight. Low-impact equipment allows you to put minimal strain on your bones and joints, while still providing an effective cardiovascular workout.
Varying Your Training Distance
Varying your distances offers both physical and psychological benefits. Interspersing longer runs with shorter runs builds in variety to prevent monotony and boredom. Short runs give your body a chance to recover while long runs burn more calories and build a sense of accomplishment as well as endurance.
Varying Your Running Terrain
Your body is an all-terrain vehicle. Ideal training includes running on varied surfaces. Too much unevenness, though, carries risks such as a turned ankle. Vary your training to include roads, grass, dirt, and gravel trails. Your feet, shins, knees, and hips will thank you. While no studies have found a clear association between running surface and injury rate (particularly between running on concrete and injury), running on concrete is more jarring than running on asphalt, grass, or dirt. Pounding on a hard surface can lead to repetitive strain injuries such as stress fractures of the tibia, iliotibial band syndrome, medial tibial stress syndrome, and compartment syndrome. Even worse than pounding, the continuity of the surface may be just as bad or worse. A hard, flat surface exaggerates the stress of impact because the mechanics of every stride are exactly the same, stressing your muscles and joints in exactly the same way.
If possible, find a softer surface to run on at least once a week, be it a trail in the woods, grass field at your local high school, or path through the park. The advantage of irregular surfaces such as grass, trails, and even gravel is that no two steps are the same, which provides slight variations in the impacts on your body, reducing the chance of an overuse injury. Irregular surfaces engage more muscles, including lateral stabilizers like the gluteus maximus and minimus, which control side-to-side movement of the hips, and tiny muscles like the peroneus brevis and the flexor hallucis brevis. The peroneus brevis muscle wraps around the fibula and around the lateral and under side of the foot, helping to control lateral movement of the foot, and the flexor hallucis brevis, a small muscle on the sole of the foot, helps move the big toe and arch the foot. These muscles aren’t needed much on a flat surface. The softer surface of trails and gravel roads not only keep the stresses of impact down but also allow faster recovery.
Read more from Mastering Running by Cathy Utzschneider.