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Training Tips for Injury-Prone Runners

2019 Spartan World Champion, Nicole Mericle, gives us her tips and tricks to stay healthy while running.
Nicole Mericle running in Boulder, Colorado Image provided by Nicole Mericle

Durability has never been my strong suit. I could blame it on a leg length discrepancy, nutritional deficiencies, or wonky mechanics. Whatever the case, some athletes just can’t maintain high mileage training without succumbing to injuries. Fellow training partners in college pushed 80 miles a week or more, while I found my sweet spot around 60. Flash forward 10 years and I now hover around 40-50 miles a week. Despite my relatively low running volume, I’ve found success and consistency in running and in OCR. Here are the ways I’ve been able to get the most bang for my buck and stay injury free.

Address the Underlying Problem

Explore reasons for your injury first. Consider taking a good hard look at the following:

  1. Nutrition - Is your caloric intake sufficient for your training load? Are you getting the right amount of protein, carbohydrates and fat? 
  2. Blood work - Testing for key biomarkers like vit D, iron, testosterone, and cortisol could reveal micronutrient deficiencies.
  3. Running and life mechanics - Obtain a 3D gait analysis to analyse running form and reveal any imbalances or strength deficits. Consider how you move in your daily life including your posture, work ergonomics, and even things like how you carry a bag.  
  4. Mobility + Strength - Have a professional assess your range of motion and muscular strength. Implement a daily mobility routine and weekly strength program.
  5. Training Increases - Take care to increase both the volume of training and the intensity slowly. The typical “no more than 10% increase per week” is up for debate, but increase cautiously.
  6. Warm up - A sure fire way to find yourself injured is to dart out the door too quickly. Take a tip from the Japanese and Kenyan runners and take your first 5-10 minutes or more incredibly easy. Think painfully, barely running easy. Yes, it may bring down your Strava pace, but your body will thank you for those few minutes of shuffling. 

When In Doubt, Take 3 Days Off

I follow something my coach, David Roche, likes to call “the 3 day rule.” Basically, if you start to have unilateral pain, instability, or extreme soreness, consider taking 3 days off from running. Get on the bike or in the pool instead. Areas I especially don’t mess with include the medial shins and feet, aka the most common areas for stress fractures. Taking 3 days off at the first sign of pain can save you weeks or even months later. If you’re an injury-prone runner, the first thing to do is write down any and all pains in your training log as soon as you feel them and proceed with caution. Take heart, you won’t lose fitness in 3 days.

Run Uphill

Most people don’t know this, but I run exclusively on trails and I do all of my workouts uphill. Yes, you heard that right- strides, intervals, and tempo runs- all uphill. My only fast, flat running happens in races. Why? It’s a long story, but I have a weird hip/back injury that doesn’t tolerate sustained flat and fast running. Running fast in races is fine because obstacles or hilly terrain breaks up the fast, flat running. I could mimic this more in practice, but I prefer to separate my run and obstacle training. Enter hills. Hill running lessens the pounding experienced on flat or downhill slopes. It also puts my body in a position which shortens my stride, making tight hip flexors happier, and it decompresses my hip and low back. Even if you don’t have a weird injury like I do, hill running can help to lessen the force your body experiences in running. Just make sure you run down easy! 

Hills are also a great way to recruit more muscle fibers. Incorporate uphill strides to increase power and efficiency.

Get On the 5 Day Plan

You don’t have to run every day to be a competitive runner. It’s ok to take a day, or even 2 off each week. For instance, I stack all of my running into 5 days. Mondays are for complete rest, while Fridays are for cross training. Instead of spreading your running out over 7 days, consider giving your body more days off and, if anything, increase your daily mileage to accommodate this schedule. Moving to a 5 day a week plan has done wonders for my running longevity.

If you run 40 miles or so per week and still succumb to injuries, consider the “Becca Plan” - run every other day and incorporate more strength and cross training. The name comes from friend and competitor Rebecca Hammond who’s also dealt with her fair share of injuries and succeeded in OCR just the same. You can find her on the ElliptiGo and in the gym pretty much every other day. All that extra work translates to running fitness. 

Cross Train 

Cross train before you have to. There are many ways to build aerobic fitness without putting your body through the stress of running. My go-to is the pool. Not only can you get a good workout swimming or aqua jogging, but the water pressure does wonders for your joint health and lymphatic fluid movement. The bike is a great option to develop strong mountain legs. It’s also easier to raise your heart rate on the bike as compared to the pool. If I want to supplement a hard run workout with some form of cross training, I’ll choose the bike. The elliptical is another option that mimics the motion of running more closely. Keep in mind this is also the most weight-bearing of all the options discussed and thus the most stressful. In college, I was able to get within a few seconds of my 1500m PR after cross training for 6 weeks. Now as a professional athlete, I incorporate cross training as a second session several times a week. 

Here’s what a typical week of training looks like for me:

Monday - Rest

Tuesday - AM 8 mile easy run with 4-6 x 20 second uphill strides + PM 45min swim + rock climb

Wednesday - AM 10 mile run workout with 5 x 3 minutes uphill + lifting + PM 45min swim

Thursday - AM 8 mile easy run + PM 1 hour bike + rock climb

Friday - 90 min bike + lift + rock climb

Saturday - 14 mile long run with a 20 min tempo in the middle

Sunday - 10 mile easy run with 4-6 x 20 second uphill strides + rock climb

Rest

When it comes to staving off injuries, rest and sleep cannot be overstated. Sleep is vital for training adaptations to occur. Yes, you have to put the work in, but your muscles won’t be able to rebuild without adequate sleep. Likewise, sleep is paramount when it comes to healing. If you want to make training improvements and stay injury free, prioritize 8-9 hours of sleep every night. This is more important than any supplement, massage tool, or training gadget out there.

Good Luck 

Stress fractures, compartment syndrome, hamstring tears, strained diaphragm, hip labral tears- I’ve dealt with my fair share of injuries over 20 years of competitive running. While I still deal with the repercussions of running through earlier injuries, I’m able to train and compete at a high level now by following these guidelines. It’s not flashy or impressive, but it keeps me healthy (barring freak ACL tears...but that’s another story) and that’s the most important thing.

Nicole Mericle strapping on a flotation belt for aqua jogging Photo provided by Nicole Mericle

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