Friday, August 31, 2012

Running More By Running Less (Often)


A frustrating fact of life for many runners is that some of us are more injury-prone than others. While most people will eventually become injured if they push themselves too hard, there are some who seem almost injury-proof, while there are others who seem to find themselves sidelined every time they start to make any progress. Unfortunately, I belong to the second group.

I shouldn't complain too much, though, since it used to be a lot worse. Back in my foot coffin days I got injured on literally every run over five miles I ever attempted. Switching to minimalist shoes has helped a lot, as has strength training, building mileage gradually, and trying to be less of an idiot.
Plantar fasciitis? Is that made by the nut company?
Still, I will never be one of those people who can run as much as they want without worrying about getting injured. I will always have to worry about getting injured--or at least, I will always have to be conscious of the possibility of injury.

As frustrating as this is to me, it really isn't the end of the world. We have all been given different strengths and weaknesses. Some of us are social butterflies with dozens of devoted friends but who struggled in school; others are academically gifted but socially awkward and lonely. Either way, as I see it, we all have a choice: either we can spend our lives complaining about our personal disadvantages (which we all have) or we can figure out ways to achieve our goals anyway.
Goal: reach other side of lake.  Solution: ride moose.  (Duh.)
The key isn't just to work harder at our weak areas (simply working harder at running just gets me injured faster) but instead to outsmart the problem by finding ways to get around it. I can't make my body less injury-prone but what I can do is avoid my previous mistakes and find new ways to approach training.

Like most difficulties in life, with every injury comes an opportunity to learn. I for one have learned a lot from my injuries. Every time I have been injured I have come back from the injury stronger, smarter, and with a better understanding of my body. My injuries have forced me to find new ways of training that are safer and more effective. I have learned different methods of cross-training and strength training, the importance and function of muscles in the body, and which kind of aches and pains are not safe to run through.
"What do you mean I can't run on it?"
Perhaps most importantly, I have slowly learned how to structure my training in a way that fits the needs of my body instead of trying to fit it into the mold of some online training plan. This has recently resulted in a bit of a personal breakthrough for me, which I can sum up in one sentence:
Don't run on consecutive days
I first got this idea from Fellrnr's website (it's also one of the main tenets of the FIRST approach), but it was a while (and several injuries) before I finally gave it a shot. It seems a bit extreme (actually, it seems a bit lazy) but the results have been fantastic.

The idea is based on the fact that your body grows stronger by a process of stress (exercise) and recovery (rest). Exercise breaks down your muscles which adapt and rebuild themselves to be stronger during the recovery period--but only if they have a recovery period in which to do it. When you run on consecutive days (especially when you run hard on consecutive days) you are stressing your body but not giving it a chance to recover and rebuild muscle. This not only stunts your body's ability to build new muscle, it also puts you at a greater risk of injury because you're putting stress on your body when it's in a weakened state.
Sometimes you just need to rest
Most plans try to get around this by alternating hard and easy runs, with the easy runs designed to function as recovery days. While this seems to work fine for some people (especially those who are accustomed to high mileage and aren't injury-prone), the problem is that by not resting fully you're limiting the amount and intensity of running that you can do on your hard days--in other words, you're choosing quantity over quality. By having complete recovery days you can run longer and harder on your on days and recover fully on your days off.

The part that has really surprised me during this experiment is that not only have the quality of my individual runs improved, the quantity of my weekly mileage has increased as well. Back when I was running five days a week this spring, my weekly schedule at peak mileage looked like this: [rest, 5, 5, 5, rest, 20, 5], with a weekly total of 40 miles per week. (In practice, it more often ended up being 35, since I tended to skip the last run of the week because I felt so beat up). This schedule left me constantly fatigued and feeling on the verge of injury (eventually it just left me injured). With my current running plan, my peak mileage week looked like this: [7.5, rest, 10, rest, 5, rest, 25], for a total of 47.5 miles. (My weekly mileage varies wildly since running every other day means some weeks I run 3 days per week and some weeks 4.)

Best of all, even though I'm running more, I feel like I'm running a lot less. There just isn't the same amount of cumulative wear and tear on my body that there was when I ran on consecutive days. I feel more energetic when I run and my legs feel fresh instead of achy when I start. Best of all, I'm achieving my goals (peak weekly mileage near 50, longest run 25) and staying healthy, which is a novelty for me. In fact, even though I have been running races for two and a half years now, when I run the Paatuwaqatsi 50k next week it will be the first time that I will have ever gotten to the starting line of a "goal" race without having gotten injured during training.
And if that's not a reason to dance, I don't know what is

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