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Staying injury-free

By Andy Mouncey

There’s a phrase I like to use when describing the difference between training and competing over the ultramarathon distance:

Getting to the start line is physical – getting to the finish line is mental and emotional.

As more and more people take up the challenge of running longer and running longer off road the waiting lists for the big races are expanding. Why should you bother to add your name to an already big list? Because a hefty proportion of those entered will get sick or injured in the build up and not even get a sniff of the start line. As the race distance goes up, the challenge of being really ready becomes an increasingly precarious balancing act – especially if you’re a normal mortal who has to work for a living/look out for a family and does this running lark out of free choice.

That’s most of us then.

The trick, I believe, is to strive to be healthy first and fit second. We all know people who are fit as butcher’s dogs but fundamentally unhealthy – and that, my friend, is not the model we’re after here. Health will give us reserves to draw on which we need during the race – especially over the very long distances – and more importantly after the race so we can recover quickly and go do it all again with a smile!

What follows here is my experience from the world of ultra distance racing which means that the lessons have been learned the hard way and the principles often tested to destruction. Whether your aspirations are 20 or 200km, I believe there will be something of value for you here. The only way to be sure? Be prepared to experiment.

The Usual Suspects

I’m going to assume that you’ve got at least a passing acquaintance with the usual suspects called on to aid recovery after a hard session or a race – and just to be clear, I’m talking about this lot:

  • Progressive cool down – that’s not from stopping dead outside your door with heart pounding and legs screaming
  • Shower and change
  • Drink milk and water (hot drink if cold weather)
  • Cold leg bath 3-10 minutes (then warm shower if contrast bathing)
  • Compression wear
  • Lie down with legs up
  • Snack within 30 minutes
  • Self massage
  • Self ice cube massage
  • Stretch
  • Cycle spinning 10-30mins (turbo, gym or road)
  • Cryotherapy (whole body freezer treatment for the very wealthy/totally sponsored)

Now you can find science to support all of these to one degree or another.

For me and the folks I work with we’ve gone through a pick-and-mix process to find those that really do the job and fit into our priorities/lifestyle.

If you want to know more about any of these, well that’s a separate article. In my experience I can tell you that they all have a place when trying to stay injury free as you are beefing up the miles.

Neither am I going to talk about food choices and sleep patterns here. They too have a role to play.

And finally, I am not going to cover emotional stress either. (Completely different to the physical stress needed as part of a progressive training plan if we are to have any hope of improving). If there’s a bunch of tough stuff going on in one part of your life then you can – unless you’re world class at doing compartmentalization or are made of stone a la Lance Armstrong – expect leakage into another part of your life.

Believe me, I know.

Whether that’s workplace or lifestyle in origin matters not a jot: If we’re focused on something we can’t control or part of our life is out of alignment/we’re adjusting to a big change for any period of time, then because we are one physical-mental-emotional unit the symptoms may well manifest themselves in our running. That could be something specific like sore quads or just feeling like we’re running through treacle.

So there you have it: Do the post-run stuff, nail the food choices, get enough rest and sort your life out. Or, if you want to approach it from the other end: Run lots of easy miles in locations that inspire you and you’ll find that everything else slots into place behind that.

If I left it there then this would be a complete cop-out as a piece of informative writing, so this article WILL look briefly at two training techniques, one alternative use of races, and one mindset which in my experience as a coach and competitor can really make a difference – and yet most people miss ‘em.

Back To Back Training

Instead of a  3 hour single outing make that 2 x 1.5 hours – or 2 + 1 hours spread either end of the same day or evening and morning of two consecutive days. Three main advantages:

  1. Can be easier to fit in
  2. Less physically stressful
  3. Develops mental strength as you have to get yourself out the door a second time*

*Great for ultras where a race is checkpoint to checkpoint and lingering in relative comfort is a real temptation.

Stealth Ninja Mode

How quietly can you run? Have you ever really paid attention? In my experience there is a direct correlation between noise and efficiency. And if you are mechanically efficient there is less stress and strain going through your body’s systems. And if there’s less stress and strain…you get more miles out of the tank and those miles are easy miles.

I mean, you’ve run with people who appear to be stamping holes in the ground with every footfall, right? Think about the shock going back through their legs and braking effect they are having to overcome multiple times over every mile. And then there’s loose kit flapping about and accessories with a high faff factor – and boy are there a lot of lovely running accessories available now! You may be able to put up with that over 5km but over 40km plus? Guaranteed to drive you or the people running with you nuts.

Adopting a mental head-toe checklist while you run can help. Go through all the parts of your body and check in with yourself that everything feels relaxed and sounds quiet. Self-talk cue words such as Relax-Easy-Smooth can also help you find a focus that helps you enjoy the journey.

Races As Training

One of the things I noticed with hindsight was that as I hit my 40’s I struggled to cope with combining racing the short stuff while preparing for the longer stuff. I mean, it’s obvious on one level: Shorter, faster is more high impact and therefore the risk of breakdown is greater. I was getting the same ole soft tissue problems in my calves – little muscles that do a huge amount of work – but it was only later looking back in my diary that the patterns emerged. I love to race and moderation can be a fleeting state even today – but the result was that I was compromising training consistency and consistency is a key component of confidence. And in ultras, as we all know, confidence IS the currency.

Over the last few years I’ve become increasingly comfortable with the idea of using medium distance races to test kit, strategy and tactics, and/or to complete them at less than 100% effort and/or to use them as part of a back to back training block. It’s a more measured approach that is less physically and mentally stressful and all the outcomes are positive ‘cos the whole thing is just framed as one big learning and building exercise.

Know Thyself

Thank the good lord we’re all different. What that means is that one runner’s road to performance longevity is just that: One runners’. We all need to find what works for us and what we can handle. As the race distance goes up beyond the marathon it would appear that the normal rules don’t apply. There is a great deal of consensus about how to prepare for and race distances upto marathon. Beyond that – and certainly getting towards 100 miles – the curious among us are still figuring it out and what science there is often inconclusive.

The only way to really know is therefore to be cool with experimenting – with means periodic disappointments are simply learning opportunities – pay close attention to the results you get and keep track of it all in a diary. Over time you will see patterns and trends in the evidence you record that will help you figure out your unique success formula for consistently high personal performance.

Remember: If you are sufficiently motivated and practice the skills of perseverance and learning you will always achieve what you want – it just might not be on your first choice timescale.

Who Is Andy Mouncey

Andy signed off 17 years as a triathlete in 2003 by setting record stage times for the Enduroman Arch To Arc Challenge: A 300 mile solo triathlon linking London and Paris via an English Channel swim. Since then he’s been into his ultrarunning. He is an accomplished speaker, coach and published author who lives with his family in the north of England.

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