How to Successfully Train and Race Injury-free

Running is often a sport or activity associated with injuries. And for good reason – the percent of runners in physical therapy, on the injured list, or running through pain is alarmingly high. While doing anything repetitive and strenuous isn’t without injury risk, I’d argue that many injuries can be prevented. It’s always my first priority to keep my runners healthy, as an injured runner simply can’t achieve their goals. I’d also say that I am asked more about injuries than anything else with my runners at Mile High Run Club, and I see literally hundreds of runners each week. Preventing injury can be tough because it takes self control, a clear plan, and a good sense of your own body and what signals to listen to.

Too much too soon and overtraining are the big contributors to injuries and aches and pains that can be avoided. For many of us, too much too soon is a big one. In an ideal world, while building mileage after an off season, injury-related hiatus, or picking up running for the first time, you need to ease your body into the demands of running. Our brains often adapt faster than legs or lungs, and so there is often a tendency to go from 0-60. Runners should build base mileage for 3-6 weeks before adding the stress of speed or long runs. Honestly, many of us build minimal base mileage. Sometimes because we are simply super enthusiastic to be running, or a race was tossed onto the calendar with perhaps not enough time to sufficiently build base, train intensely, taper and race. The first thing we typically toss is the base mileage.

Try to keep in mind that physical adaptions take time. Our cells and fibers are stressed and broken down during activity, and then adapt, grow and improve. Without building mitochondria, improving bone density, lung capacity, and introducing the basic stress of base mileage (easy running), injury risk goes way up because our bodies aren’t ready to handle high mileage, speed workout, and long runs. The adaptions from stress don’t occur when we are running, but instead when we are resting. So skipping rest days in the name of progress is actually counter productive. So if you are coming back into running at virtually no miles, build carefully and with purpose. Everyone will be different, but you may simply start by running 4 30-minute runs throughout the week, mostly nonconsecutive days. On those rest days, be sure to hydrate, sleep, and maybe focus on foam rolling and stretching. Where we all start is going to vary based on experience, fitness, and if injury was the cause of the running hiatus. But easing into running should simply be that and nothing more.

The last time I was injured (November 2012), I was forced to take 8 weeks off entirely from running, and then cleared to ease back into the swing of things very carefully – with no speed runs until at least 1 month of easy base-mileage building. I remember how excited I was to be cleared to run. But I also remember how incredibly humbling an easy 30-minute run felt. When I was cleared to get back to speed runs, I was incredibly slow and I was working very hard for numbers that used to represent my easy runs. It can very frustrating. There can be the temptation to then go a little crazy and hit training hard every day. But perspective and a clear plan can help us keep our heads about us.

Overtraining can also lead to injuries. I tend to see these injuries in a few different types of runners: extremely competitive and talented athletes running 70-125 miles per week, and those who perhaps are running 30-60 mile weeks, but also do a ton of other activities – crossfit, fitness or dance classes, or runners who simply take their “recovery run” days too fast, actually not giving their body the runs that should feel super easy. Now, this also isn’t me saying runners should only run. In fact, I’m a coach who is a firm believer in supplemental and supportive training. But the training should complement your training schedule and not compromise it. We are all different. For example, I have found personally that minimal mileage but time lifting heavy in the gym has kept me feeling stronger and more efficient as a runner than ever, and I have luckily not been injured since 2012. Other runners may find weekly yoga helps their tight hamstrings, or that boxing helps their core and upper body strength.

At the end of the day, there should be purpose behind training days and days off. Know the purpose. If there really isn’t one, why are you doing it? Sometimes “because I want to,” or “for fun” is a totally fine reason. Just be honest about where you are in your running journey and how to protect your health. If you are injured, there go all those goals and races.

The Aches and Pains of Training (and how to handle them)

Training for a sport or event always brings with it aches and pains. However, some aches and pains are part of the training process, while others should not be. Sometimes it’s hard to gauge pain and what to do about it. I am not a doctor, but I do have experience as an athlete and a coach in navigating these training waters, and want to bestow some tips for how to minimize pains, and also how to react to the different kinds you may encounter in training.

If you are training for something that is a challenge for you, there will be days and weeks of feeling sore, tired, perhaps with that “heavy leg” feel, or general muscle fatigue often associated with weight training, running or walking on challenging inclines, or moving really fast. These “growing pains” are not just saved for elite athletes or marathoners. Training for your very first 5K, trying to really run hard and race a 5K to the best of your ability, running your first trail race, blazing through a 400M race – if you are pushing yourself hard, whatever that means for you, you will certainly feel it.

Aches and pains can be challenging for runners to handle. For example, I know plenty of folks who will train through anything. They could have a fractured foot, and they will still be out there hammering out speed on the track. Others will refuse to take rest days and expect they can work through anything. Is this the best thing for a runner? Absolutely not. Then there are the runners who, the minute something feels uncomfortable, whine and refuse to navigate that uncomfortable feeling that is part of training. That runner will have a very hard time on race day when the going gets tough, because they refuse to adapt to the fatigue and uncomfortable feeling that usually comes with racing or completing a distance. There is, however, a happy medium between these two extremes. That runner is the one who will be most successful. It takes time, practice, and self-awareness to become that runner.

Here are a few tips that can help you push towards your goals while also being safe:

  • Take recovery and active recovery days when sore. You cannot expect to go from 0-60 successfully. Your body needs time to be stressed and adapt. This cannot happen over night.
  • Sore and achy muscles often feel better when stretched, foam rolled and iced. I often find that things loosen up if I go for an easy run or walk as active recovery. It may sound strange, but gentle exercise the day after a long or hard effort can speed up the recovery process.
  • If something feels tender at the beginning of a run but feels better the longer you run, you can carefully continue your workout. If things don’t feel better or begin to feel worse, call your run quits.
  • We all have a different history before tackling goals. Be aware of your body history and your potential strengths and weaknesses. We all have them. For example, I know my left IT band gets tight and hip flexibility can be an issue for me, so I am very much aware of my hips when I run – especially long runs and speed runs. I also do strength training to support and strengthen that specific weakness. Another runner may have other issues.
  • There are some “injuries” many runners find they can train through (carefully!) and others they simply cannot. A break, fracture, tear, dislocation, tendonitis – those are all things that will and should sideline a runner from training. Some chronic “injuries” like runner’s knee, plantar fasciitis, IT band syndrome – can be carefully trained through – though you can expect some additional rest days, PT, and additional care. Always discuss your aches and pains with a doctor or physical therapist before self-diagnosing.
  • There are very few injuries where rest, ice, compression and elevation are bad ideas. So when in doubt, follow those steps.
  • It’s easy to panic the minute something feels unusual. Try not to have a meltdown, and remember that a few days off from training isn’t the end of the world. If it turns out your pain is something serious and your future goals need to be paused, do your best to follow medical advice and focus on being the best patient possible. Many athletes are horrible patients, and don’t help themselves get healthy ASAP. If you have a bone issue, talk to your doctor about your diet, and how you can best kick your bone density up and fuel your healing process. If you can still train without impact, be proactive about training in different ways – which will certainly help your sanity without hurting your recovery.
  • Have a network of doctors, physical therapists and perhaps trainers (running coach and/or personal trainer) who can guide you and be your support system. Only work with folks you really trust. Having that “team” behind you will certainly give you what you need to safely achieve your goals.

Training is hard. It’s not for the weak – physically or mentally. It will bring with it aches, pains, achievements and milestones. Hard work pays off. Just make sure you are honest with your body, goals, and how you plan to safely get there. Best of luck for an awesome season! – Corky

How to transition from injured to racing again

Harrisburg Marathon 2012. En route to a PR until I injured a few miles later. After this race I was forced to stop running for 8 weeks.

Harrisburg Marathon 2012. En route to a PR until I injured a few miles later. After this race I was forced to stop running for 8 weeks.

I was recently requested to write a blog about coming back to training for a goal race after some time off due to injury. I am happy to oblige Miss. Gallagher (girl, you are going to come back stronger than ever!), and think this topic is one that’s all too familiar for runners but also something we often struggle with.

Taking time off from running is rarely a choice runners want to make, but often forced to make at some point in their running careers. A troublesome IT band, tendonitis, stress fractures, torn ligaments – these are the unhappy and always frustrating part of this sport we love. Sadly, there is no magic pill or shoe or weird food we can eat to fix the problem. At the end of the day, the doctor may tell you what none of us want to hear: “REST.” The worst is when we are told “Rest for ________ months.” That’s like a knife to the gut. Being forced to rest many a runner insane. Personally, I become a monster to deal with. I am unhappy, restless, convince myself everyday that I am going to lose all fitness, and will never be as fast or strong as I once was, that my life is over, so on and so forth. The pity party can last for a few days or a few months, depending on the person and how many races or beautiful running days pass them by.

Then, like a child on Christmas morning, you will finally be given the green light – you are clear to run again! YESSSSSS!!!!!!! This is perhaps the best mood you’ll be in since your injury, and rightly so! You can finally take the first steps towards being a runner again. Best. Day. Ever. That is until you are told you need to build your mileage slowly and safely. No jumping into a fast 10K run around Central Park. Nope. Instead you may be told you can start with 10-15 mile WEEKS. Physically, 10-15 mile weeks may shockingly feel tough. Mentally, you’ll be happy to be out running, but feel ridiculous running so little if you were perviously a mileage junky. The struggle most of us have is being patient and smart after we are given the green light. Mentally, we see ourselves at our peak performance and don’t understand or easily accept that no, you are not there right now – though with time and smart training you can be again.

Last year, I was in this very boat and it sucked. I went from 60-80 mile weeks down to 10-15 mile weeks after an 8-week hiatus. Coming back was awful. Mentally, I was frustrated on almost every post-hiatus run. I would go on team runs, and struggle and turn blue at a pace that months earlier was my conversational pace, while everyone else flew by with ease. They were incredibly encouraging, but in my own head I was really hard on myself. Still, those 10-mile weeks turned into 50-mile weeks over time. I reminded myself over and over that I was not going to be injured that year, and that was the ultimate goal. After all, running poorly was far better than not being allowed to run at all. So yes, if you are coming back from an injury, I can totally relate. I can sympathize, and I can be the voice of reason for how and while coming back slowly is the only shot you’ll have of a healthy season.

The important thing is to not compare yourself and your current fitness to the people around you. Hopefully they are not also coming back from injury, so why compare yourself to a healthy runner? In fact, why compare yourself at all? Instead, look back over your past training history, because the evidence for what went wrong and lead you to being injured may be there. Mistakes are welcomed lessons to runners as long as we learn from them. Figure out what perhaps you did wrong. The hard part is being objective. What may be right for your training buddy could be wrong for you. Did you take rest days? Were they really rest days, or were you “not running” but still training in some way? Did you get much sleep? Did you never stretch? Did you wear awful shoes when not running? Did you take on too much mileage or intensity too soon? Did you race every weekend? Do you have physical limitations you pushed too hard? I promise you that your training past has some clues for what went wrong.

Its easy to be mentally restless when coming back to training, especially if you have a goal race looming in the future. I get it, you want to play catchup. Don’t. Instead, come up with a sensible plan. Lay it out in front of you, so you can visualize your time and how to wisely use it. This will reduce any anxiety over a race goal and give you time to focus on base mileage and building back to where you need to be before pushing pace and distance.

Last year, I was given the green light for my first 10-15 mile week on January 8th. I had the Boston Marathon on my calendar for April 15th. Three months to train for a marathon isn’t a lot of time if you are starting with great base mileage. I was starting at zero. Literally. I made it to the Boston Marathon, but I was forced to make adjustments. My race goal had to be to finish, and to run it easy. I was not allowed to run hard. My doctor also didn’t let me run anything fast until mid-March. I ran one 20-miler in my training, while I usually run 3-5 long runs of 20+ miles leading up to a marathon. It was a hard pill to swallow, especially because my original plan was to race Boston and go for a big PR. However, I felt incredibly lucky on April 15th to feel strong and to cover 26.2 miles a few short months after being side-lined. It may happen to you, that your goals get crushed. It’s hard, but remind yourself that once you get healthy and back to racing, there are always future marathons or races. Maybe this won’t be “your year,” but there is always next year – as long as you take care of yourself. As for me, my big PR happened six months after Boston, at the Philly Marathon. Again, you can always adjust and when the timing is right it will happen for you. Be kind to yourself.

When coming back to racing, use support from runners around you. The odds are that many of them have experience with injuries. Lean on them for support. Just be careful to not let them tempt you with running too far or fast too soon. Join them for mileage, but hop in or out of the run as you need to. This will make you part of your running community without doing too much. Communicate with your running pals about your limited mileage or speed. They will be supportive. Again, they have probably been there before.

Lastly, remind yourself that these struggles will make you are stronger and smarter runner in the big picture. Force yourself to learn from your mistakes and your running career can last decades. And if you think the speedy lady in the park who can clock 80+ mile weeks year after year won’t get injured at some point, guess again. Odds are she will. Its part of our sport. At some point we are all that runner starting at zero. The trick is the lessen the odds of being that runner time and time again.

Cherry Blossom Trip

View from the Lincoln Memorial.

View from the Lincoln Memorial.

This past weekend I hopped a train down to DC to run the Cherry Blossom 10-Miler. I had made the decision weeks beforehand that I would not be racing, but rather running for fun. Between a cold Winter and months of being sick off and on, my training simply wasn’t in a place to run hard.

Unfortunately, on Thursday I was full-on sick again. My doctor put me back on antibiotics for bronchitis and a sinus infection. Obviously the timing wasn’t awesome, but I was surprised to feel pretty darn decent on Friday and Saturday. I focused on rest, and was optimistic that I could run on Sunday.

On race morning, I woke up after a night of coughing off and on feeling not so awesome. That deep chest cough I had been battling for the last five weeks had magically decided to return. I am still on antibiotics, so I was surprised to suddenly not feel good. I shook it off, and changed into my race gear and ate a bagel.

With Honest Abe

With Honest Abe

I then made a decision I had never made before – I decided not to run. Battling sickness over and over again has put me in the position where I need to make smart choices. I should also mention that at the start of the race, temperature was locked in at a cold 34 degrees. I hadn’t brought Winter running gear, as the weekend forecast when I had packed was calling for mid-40s to 50s for race morning. Running in my non-Winter race gear, while sucking in icy air sounded like a stupid move for someone sick.

While part of me was bummed to miss out on a race I’d not only gotten in through the lottery on the first try, I had qualified for a seeded spot, I was also excited to run through the Nation’s Capital. However, a lesson I have learned, that perhaps is a lesson all runners must learn – its silly and often stupid to risk health for one race. Cherry Blossom will be there in future years. Risking my health for the next few weeks simply wasn’t worth it.

Race wall of porta potties!

Race wall of porta potties!

This is a lesson all of us runners must learn at some point. There will be those races where lacing up and heading to the starting line just isn’t smart. Perhaps its a nagging injury, being under trained, or being sick. It’s in our nature as runners to tough it out, push through discomfort and take that gamble. However, if you run for fun – are you going to have fun while running ill, injured, or under prepared? The answer is “no.” If you are running to better your race time, the odds you’ll achieve that while ill, injured or under prepared are slim – so why tough it out when in the big picture its one race.

If you end up in a position like I did this past weekend, remind yourself that not racing won’t disappoint or let down your friends, family or team mates. You aren’t a wimp or a weakling, you are smart. It’s hard to remember that, especially as toughing it out is often part of running culture.

Washington Monument

Washington Monument

As I leave DC and write this blog on the train, I am disappointed that the weekend turned out the way it did. I love this sport, and I love being a part of it. But a few weeks from now I’ll be focused on other goals, and prepping to pace a runner on his 26.2 mile journey at the New Jersey Marathon. I am hoping my decision today will help kick this sickness roller coaster for good. And if it doesn’t, at least I know I am doing the best I can and making choices that are proactive towards getting healthy.

Remember, if you are smart and lucky, you will have years of being healthy and running many miles in your future.

Stretch It Out

I was recently requested by a friend of mine who is new to running to write a blog about stretching. Since I am here to help, I am happy to write a blog that will hopefully help and clarify your stretching needs and questions.

Runners often lose flexibility. This is because the activity doesn’t require a huge range of motion, and as your muscles, ligaments and tendons adapt and strengthen for running, they shorten and tighten. Interestingly enough, being super flexible can actually be problematic for runners, since loose and flexible body parts can lead to injury. Think about it, there isn’t the tightness/strength that tightness provides. Being too tight isn’t good either, as rang of motion can become limited and can lead to injuries too.

The happy medium? Stretch, but don’t go overboard. Forcing flexibility is never good, and is especially bad for runners. I have clients to swear by incorporating pilates and yoga into their weekly training – which is awesome. However, if you are in a yoga class five days a week AND running, you may need to be careful.

For those of us who are not avid yogis or dancers, here’s my advice for maintaining flexibility and keeping those legs mobile.

Always warm up before your run. If your run is easy, the run itself is enough of a warmup. If you are doing speed work, get those legs moving slowly for 5-10 minutes first. You do NOT need to stretch pre-workout. Some coaches/trainers believe stretching pre-workout is actually dangerous. Just food for thought.

Post-workout, cool down with a jog if you were running hard. Again, if you were running easy miles, a cool down is not necessary. Get in the habit of stretching as soon as you finish your run, as muscles will cool and tighten quickly.

Target stretching these major muscle groups: quads, hamstrings, IT band and calf muscles/Achilles. If you need advice as to HOW to stretch, I suggest looking online, or I can answer that for you.

Don’t over-stretch. It shouldn’t be excruciatingly painful. Hold stretches for about 30 seconds, and do not forget to breathe!

While stretching, this is a good time to get some protein into your body. Refueling ASAP will help those muscles recover quickly, and can help ward off soreness. I’m a fan of chocolate milk or Greek yogurt. (See my previous post on Refueling!)

**** If you find you have pain in one spot (one hip, for example), you may need to pay attention to your running form, and potentially see a PT. Sore pain, which occurs after working hard and building muscle is a very different kind of pain compared to a tight IT band, hip pain, etc.

Bouncing Back

Liz Corkum 322Most runners and athletes will experience injury. Statistically, over 50% of runners deal with injuries every year. Injuries are hard to deal with, perhaps harder mentally than physically. Most runners don’t want to take time off, and will find pretty much any excuse to continue training. Coming back from time off is tough, but often time off is the answer.

Personally, I can relate to struggles with injuries. Taking time off mentally is hard. I find myself in fear of how much fitness I’ll lose, how hard it will be to come back, and often questioning whether I can be as strong as I was before the injury.

Once getting the green light to train again, the journey back is slow. What used to feel incredibly easy is suddenly extremely difficult. Have faith, it will get better. The key is to be patient with the process, and to remember that your body and mind need time to adapt after time off.

If you are like me, you will find the process of coming back extremely frustrating. However, when I feel angry, I remind myself that without the hard work, I can’t magically get back to peak performance. So, if you are also struggling to get back into peak performance, remind yourself to be patient, work hard, but also rebuild your training wisely.