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Training is stress. It’s easy to think that we get stronger while we trail run, but in fact the opposite is true. After a certain point, training is about causing breakdown. It is not until after you stop and recover that the magic happens. Responding to the stress, muscles and bones get stronger, cells become more efficient energy centers and even the properties of your blood begin to change. To improve, it’s as simple as applying stress, stimulating a manageable amount of breakdown and recovering adequately.
But the formula is not always that easy. If the body gets over-stressed in a chronic or acute way, or if recovery is inadequate, the breakdown processes might be too much to heal from easily. Injuries are the unfortunate consequence of a sport that rewards strategically stressful behavior.
However, by practicing injury prevention and self-care, you can minimize the risk of break down so that you can continue building up your running strength. The keys are to know what to do before, during and after your run, when to rest and how to respond to potential problems before they become major crises.
Before, During and After Running
If all you do is run, you are not doing enough. Trail running has a beautiful simplicity that attracts many people to the sport, but, if you make it too simple, there is a risk that your body isn’t prepared to experience the beauty. Here is how to get prepared to stay healthy on the trails.
Before You Run
A good warm-up can prevent many injuries before they ever happen. The key is to focus on dynamic movements and mobility, rather than the stretching you may have done in gym class.
The benefits of a warm-up are threefold:
• First, it improves range of motion and prepares the joints and muscles for the dynamic movements that happen while running;
• Second, it gets the blood pumping and literally warms up extremities, making them more resilient at the beginning of the run;
• Third, by starting your physiological engine, it reduces perceived exertion at the start of the run, giving you more bang for your running buck.
So how should you warm up? The options are endless, but a tried-and-true routine is to mix lunges, leg swings and fast walking over the course of five minutes (see THE FIVE-MINUTE WARM-UP below). But anything will work, so get creative. Some runners even swear by dancing prior to their early morning runs! Moving your hips is one way to prepare for grooving on the trail.
During Your Run
Once you start running, aside from avoiding going too hard, the key is to have awareness of how your body is feeling. Most injuries don’t just happen—they aren’t often acute ailments like ankle sprains or torn ACLs. Instead, the majority of injuries are chronic. They start as a minor concern but blossom into a major concern over the course of many miles.
How do you know the difference between something that you should run through and something you shouldn’t? The answer isn’t simple, but one way to think about it is in reference to where you feel the pain or soreness (see TROUBLE SPOTS below). However, the general rule is that you should always err on the side of caution. When in doubt, stop your run and live to run another day. No one regrets cutting a run a few miles short to prevent injury, but lots of people regret running a few miles too far.
In the trail-running world, cutting a run short is often called the “walk of shame.” It’s when you feel something bothering you, and you decide that it’s best to stop. That walk back to the trailhead can be lonely and long, and it takes courage. But learn to strategically use the walk of shame when it might be needed, and you can save yourself months of not being able to run due to injury. So let’s change it right now to the “walk of intelligence.” A walk of intelligence every so often is the key to consistently healthy running.
After Your Run
Just like a good warm-up can prevent injuries before they happen, a good cool down and strengthening routine can keep your body resilient against training stress.
Immediately after your run, do some more leg swings and light stretching while your body is warm. Hydrate and make a minute or two to put your feet up and decompress from the run if possible. These little actions can help get your body prepared for your day.
Throughout the rest of the day, don’t just curl up like a pretzel at your computer. Instead, aim to walk around at least five minutes every hour and stay hydrated. Many overuse injuries don’t start in the trails, but at the desk. Treat your body well when you’re working, and it’ll reward you when you’re playing.
Foam Roll, Every Day
Before you go to sleep each day—at some point, whether it be right after your run, in a conference room at work or just before bed—do at least five minutes of foam rolling, focusing on your quads, calves, hips and hamstrings. Foam rolling releases built-up tension and tightness, helping prevent some injuries like IT band tendinitis while simultaneously making your legs feel fresher each day.
Nearly every elite runner foam rolls (or gets more expensive massages), because it works. Even if you’re just running a couple times a week, use the secret of the pros and be diligent about foam rolling.
You can do everything right and still get injured, sick or fatigued. The nature of life and running is that things aren’t always linear and predictable. In an unpredictable world, it’s essential to learn to anticipate and adapt to chaos.
But how do you adapt to the unpredictable? It depends on the issue you are facing and why you are facing it. Four rules can guide your decisions.
Rule #1: Take at least one rest day each week.
Running involves pounding on your muscles, bones and joints. That pounding can create minor tweaks that just need a day or two to heal, but you can’t always feel those little injuries before they become major ones. Prophylactic rest days scheduled at least once per week ensure that your body is getting enough time to heal, even when you might not think you have anything to heal from.
For many busy runners, Monday is the perfect candidate for a rest day, since it’s the start of the work week after a trail-filled weekend. For experienced runners, usually one day of rest per week is enough. If you are less experienced, take two rest days until you can repeat that cycle without getting injured or fatigued (Monday and Friday are ideal to bookend the weekend). And for less experienced or older runners more susceptible to overuse injuries, three days of rest can work well. However, you probably shouldn’t exceed three days of rest when healthy. Running strongly requires running consistently, and, somewhat counter-intuitively, resting too much can cause more injures by not letting your body adapt to the running stimulus adequately.
Rule #2: Try to not take two rest days in a row unless dealing with an injury, fatigue or sickness.
Because frequency of running is essential for the body to adapt, it’s important to spread out your rest days. Many runners could tell a surprising story of just taking a few days off, then getting very sore after their first run back. The body craves constant stimulus, so distributing your rest can allow you to heal while also giving you the stimulus needed to stay adapted.
Rule #3: If injured, sick or fatigued, err on the side of caution.
Every morning, honestly look into the mirror and think about how you feel. Most injuries don’t start with a bang, but a whimper. You’ll feel something small, run through it for a few weeks, then find out that little injury is now a major issue.
So the key is to stop early, guided by the principle that a few days off is no big deal, a few weeks off is frustrating but manageable and a few months off is no fun at all.
This cautious approach will be over-inclusive for many injuries or illnesses. Sometimes, you’ll be taking time off when you’re totally fine. But just because five of the chambers are empty doesn’t mean you should play Russian Roulette with your health.
No runner has ever regretted taking an extra rest day or three when dealing with an injury, illness or fatigue. When in doubt, ground yourself now so you can fly later.
Rule #4: You shouldn’t be tired all the time.
Fatigue is normal, especially if you have kids and/or a busy job. But if you feel like a low-energy Jeb all the time, something more worrisome could be going on, like iron deficiency or the presence of abnormally high levels of stress hormones like cortisol. Unchecked fatigue can culminate in over-training syndrome, which has the potential to take you off the trails for months or even years. But even if it never reaches that point, persistent fatigue is probably a sign that your lifestyle is not healthy. It’s important not to push through chronic tiredness without a strategy to get better.
Most runners, especially female runners, should get their blood tested every few months for a few key things like vitamin D, iron and hormone levels. Tracking the variation of those parameters over time can let you know when to supplement and when to back off training.
RESPONDING TO INJURIES
Sometimes, despite all the best precautions and all the well-timed rest, you may still get injured. First, if you don’t have a diagnosis and you think you may be injured, stop running immediately. Don’t wait for a doctor’s orders before taking time off.
When you’re in the injury limbo, you can try self diagnosis or crowd sourcing medical advice from your friends. Sometimes, that works, especially for common injuries like Achilles tendinitis or shin splints. But to be safe, you should try to see a doctor relatively early in the healing process. X-rays and MRIs are essential for some injuries, especially when bonse or complex body parts like the feet are involved.
The general rule is that rest solves most things. But if you don’t want to rest and insist on coming back, don’t do so until you have a definitive diagnosis. Then, when you feel like you are ready to return to running, stop and wait another two days. Running when feeling just OK is dangerous, so shift your goals to being good as new when you start running again.
THE FINAL WORD
Trail running is like recess. It’s your chance to get outside and play before having to go back inside for real life. To ensure you aren’t put on detention from recess with an injury or over-training syndrome, learn to take days off, being consistent with training while simultaneously being OK with resting. It’s a tough balance to strike, but when you figure it out, decades of trail joy will be yours. Recess for life!