There is only so much experience a 25 year old can have at anything, and when it comes to running I’ve only spent 5ish years of my 25 invested in the sport. For 3.5 of those 5 years I was just turning up to track sessions, doing the workouts, and then going home and not doing a huge amount of anything else. Those track sessions did very little for my times beyond a kind of newbie-gains period of progression.
It also did very little for my injury prevention, for that matter.
Today though, I think I take things a little bit more seriously. Still, 1.5 years of solid training doesn’t make me much of an expert, but in those years, and in those younger, novice years, I’ve learnt some things the hard way.
Which is to say, I’ve fucked up.
Dealing with injuries is the main way in which I’ve fluffed it. To get better at running you have to run more, and so when we decide we want to get better at running, we do what? We run more. We maybe even run everyday. We maybe even run pretty hard everyday, because early on the concept of running hard and running easy is foggy, because it is hard enough to get out of the door and onto the road and around the block, so doing it in a easy way doesn’t really make sense until you’ve done it so many times it feels like second nature. By that point, we may have already overdone it.
Overdoing it is so easy. All runners, at some point, find out what that feels like. Chances are it will be when things are feeling good, when times are tumbling, when you’re soaring along your chosen track at paces which feel smooth, fast, fun. It’s all going so well that you keep on going and going and going until your body says excuse me? Did you know this is kind of hard going? Did you know that you might be exerting three times body weight of force with every stride you take? And then something clicks, in a bad way.
The key to this is to ease off. I know this. We all know this, I think. Rest alone won’t always solve the issue if it is particularly bad, but if something has gone wrong then running more isn’t going to make it go away. David Roche, who is a fantastic and open coach whose wisdom is out there on the internet for us all to learn from, installs one rest day a week into each of his athletes plans, and has a quick, simple solution for if they pull up with an injury complaint: three days full rest.
My own coach is quick to remind us to ease off if things feel rough, and to focus on form over teeth-gritting, muscle-tearing effort, because, ultimately, a healthy runner beats an injured one every time.
But how many of us will listen to someone who knows exactly what they are talking about? How many of us will listen to science? To sense? To our coaches who we specifically are supposed to listen to? Too few, probably, and in the past that has included me. For whatever reason we can’t back down from our training. We ignore the fact that three days off is going to do very, very little in terms of negatively impacting our long term progression, and instead we dial in on…well, I don’t know what. Is it the fact that we won’t meet our weekly mileage goal if we have three days off? Because, really, who cares about that? You don’t automatically get the time you want for hitting your mileage goal four weeks in a row, and if you don’t turn up healthy to a race you don’t get any time at all, let alone the one you want.
Which leads me to the pain in my foot. I can deal with it in a few different ways. Ice is a good one. I can also massage it, and use anti-inflammatory medication. But most importantly I can run less, I can take three days of rest. I’m four weeks out from a race, I want to be hitting peak mileage, smashing out speed sessions, and in the past I might have tried to push through the pain to do just that, but now, a little older, a little wiser, I am thinking about how I want to feel in four weeks’ time. I’m thinking let’s just give this a few days, see what’s going on. Not only can a few days rest ease discomfort, it can give you perspective on how and why the pain has popped up in the first place, and how you can alter your training to make sure that once it goes away, it stays away.
When I step up to the line (if the race isn’t Covid-cancelled) how do I want to feel? I know how I don’t want to feel. I know I don’t want a nagging thought in my mind about some unaddressed injury, or some lingering, ghostly pain. So I rest now, ice now, because I’ve done it wrong before, and it always ends the same way: forced rest, when the injury gets to choose when I’m sidelined, not me.