Coaching rocks. It rocks for many reasons. For example, it counts as business formal when I cinch down my split shorts with a fancy knot. Plus, lubricant is a business expense. What a sport!
The specific reason I want to highlight today is how many empirical observations you see over time. Some athletes I coach have written in their training logs thousands of times, and I have responded thousands of times, usually while eating thousands of Cheetos. Problem, research, intervention, information, Cheetos. Add that information up over time, and most coaches could list out countless observations that they could share with the world. This article is one of those observation dumps.
As an athlete, injuries are inevitable.
Whether it’s someone doing their first 5K or LeBron James, no one, and I mean NO ONE, can escape plantar fasciitis. Injury is coming for us all. Death, taxes, and IT band syndrome.
Those injuries don’t happen in a vacuum, though, unless you stick your foot in a Hoover. Instead, injury from training and adaptation to training are flip sides of the same coin. All of the underlying physiology that causes us to get faster and stronger can also cause us to get a Cash-Back Rewards Card with the local radiologist.
Think about shin splints. Bone cells in the tibia stressed in the right way at the right time come back as a denser and more resilient bone that can handle increased load. Overload that same stress, and it may be a classic shin splint. A bit more, and it’s a stress fracture. The problem is that it’s tough to know where you fall along the spectrum of injury and adaptation in the moment. And every physiological process works like that—aerobic adaptation is connected to overtraining, strength gains are connected to tendon ruptures, Cheeto dust is connected to keyboard keys that require jackhammer power to type. The only way to fully avoid injuries is to stay on the couch or not push yourself much at all.
In coaching, you get to see all of these stories unfold over time, with people of all different backgrounds and goals. Who is able to straddle the injury/adaptation line for long-term gains? What are they doing? Those questions are especially tough because the effectiveness of all of the possible interventions added together is impossible to determine in a lab setting, often due to pesky statisticians who talk about confounding variables and “significance” and are no fun at all at parties.
So this article is a quick-hitter list of some of the most important elements I have seen in coaching to adapt to training long-term, with the understanding that different things work for everyone, and that I may be seeing patterns that are not there. Most are backed by specific studies, but not all. And as always, my biases are like the arrows in the movie 300, THEY SHALL BLOT OUT THE SUN.
Let’s do this!
One: Eat enough, particularly protein
Low energy availability is a primary culprit in all-cause injury rates, and adequate fuel is absolutely key for adaptation. Inadequate fueling raises stress hormone cortisol, hurts the endocrine system, and suppresses resting metabolic rate, turning down the temperature on the performance fire.
I have seen athletes that don’t eat enough. And I have seen athletes with long, successful careers. But I have almost never seen both at the same time.
For macronutrient distribution, many athletes I coach that complain of persistent soreness of soft tissues find out that they are undershooting protein intake in particular. My wife/co-coach Megan and I have worked with nutritionists like Kylee Van Horn to develop a general recommendation of 100+ grams of protein a day, with the caveat that it varies heavily based on the person. Carbs and fat are important too. All food is your friend.
Two: Optimize biomarkers that influence stress and performance
If you read enough social media posts on the internet, you’ll hear someone say that you should get all the nutrients you need from food. Whenever I see that, it’s a giveaway that the person has likely not worked with a vast array of athletes over time. Sure, it’s possible for some people with good genetics and nutrition to nail their optimized ranges in the produce aisle, but it’s not easy, especially for female athletes dealing with the added complexity of the menstrual cycle.
A blood test is a great place to start, which you can get from a doctor or a testing company like Inside Tracker. Pay attention to values that are outside reference ranges, along with values that are not optimized but still within the range. For example, the low end of the ferritin reference range is often 10-20 ng/mL depending on where you get the test, but studies show performance impacts in some athletes when ferritin is less than 40 ng/mL.
Biomarkers to focus on are: Vitamin D (often tragically low in athletes, even those that get plenty of sun); ferritin/iron (key for red blood cell formation and oxygen transport); hemoglobin/hematocrit (often overall health indicators connected to other variables like ferritin); cortisol (stress); Vitamin B12 (for energy, particularly for vegans and vegetarians); and reproductive/thyroid hormones (sometimes an indicator of other issues that should be addressed). If the test finds a very small magical school bus that is exploring your bloodstream to teach children about biology, that would be helpful information as well.
Three: Keep easy runs easy
If running feels too hard day-to-day, this sport will chew you up and spit you out with time. Relaxed easy runs are optimal for the aerobic system, enhancing adaptations that will help you run fast when it counts. Excessively fast easy runs cause added injury risk and possible aerobic inefficiency, all while having few benefits outside of an initial adaptation period.
Four: Limit how often you go to the well with excessively hard efforts
Megan and I tell athletes to approach training with the mindset of leaving some room for cream. That extra space for stress prevents the miscalibrations that can unintentionally push healthy, build-up-oriented training into the realm of self-destruction. For faster workouts, going too hard too often can lead to musculoskeletal inefficiency as the body gets good at withstanding fatigue, rather than using the same amount of fatigue to equate to a higher output. Then, every 3-6 weeks, you can go ALL-OUT for a supercompensation stimulus that will get all of the benefits, usually with better performance too.
Five: Extra-long runs are overrated
Olympic gold medalist Frank Shorter had a quote that long runs should be 2 hours or 20 miles, whichever comes first. Obviously, that exact phrase is not relevant for too many athletes. But the principles have profound implications for training theory: go too long on long runs, and you have to slow down substantially to complete the distance without throwing your body into the metaphorical wood-chipper.
Long runs beyond 2-3 hours primarily build musculoskeletal resilience to handle that sort of load in the future. However, muscular strength might not be helped much at all due to the reduced output. Aerobically, there is no magic that happens at hour 5 that isn’t happening at hour 2-3, and the increased cortisol could actually undercut already-earned gains.
If you’re doing ultras, long runs are important, but don’t overdo it. Ultrarunning is full of stories of athletes who burnt themselves to a crisp with very long training runs, but sometimes that lesson seems to be lost on each new generation. We want to avoid training styles that amount to saying: “Next person up to the woodchipper.”
Six: Self-massage and mobility
The science of percussive massage and foam rolling is mixed, but generally favorable, showing reduced delayed-onset muscle soreness. And while studies vary, every pro training group has regular massage access. Give yourself that same love, for 5-10 minutes each day.
Mobility work like bands, leg swings, and light stretching work your muscles and joints through a dynamic range of motion that may reduce soreness too. Runners that “just run” are tempting fate, and fate packs a punch.
Seven: Do some strength work, but not too much
Relaxed, uplifting strength work can improve running economy and reduce soreness/injury risk. Excessive strength work can make athletes stumble around in a pained stupor. Should you be doing some bodyweight exercises? Strong yes. Should you be going for your max squat or jumping off a tall box? Probably not. Here is an all-in-one strength and mobility cheat sheet.
Eight: Form matters, as do shoes
Gait retraining is a very cool field that provides form cues to athletes to reduce ground contact time and impact forces. The basic principles are to run with light, quick feet, with a higher cadence (I like 170+ as a general guideline). My big focus is telling athletes to “shorten the lever,” bending the knee after the foot leaves the ground to enhance knee drive. Arms relaxed, slight but almost imperceptible forward lean. Or for a mantra that I use for myself (I thrive on animal-based visualizations): PRANCE LIKE A SHOW PONY.
Nine: Give yourself 8 hours in bed when possible
Sleep is cool! But don’t stress too much about it. We all know it matters, and someone that struggles with sleep quality probably doesn’t need to hear that they are inadequate at 2 AM, when they are already staring at the ceiling contemplating their inadequacies. My guideline for athletes is 8 hours in bed if they can, with a good book on the nightstand for insurance. Whether that time is spent in REM sleep, deep in a book, thinking about some presentation you messed up in fourth grade, or thinking about the futility of that time you spent reading a 2000-word running article, it’s all restful in its own way.
Ten: Pay attention to stress and listen to your body
The body doesn’t know miles, it knows stress. If you’re sore all the time, or injured too often, it’s likely that something is causing stress to be elevated relative to what’s healthy for your body. That’s OK. We got this.
We’re in an ever-expanding universe on a distressingly-spinning rock with alarmingly-dwindling ketchup stores. If you feel overwhelmed sometimes, it’s probably a sign that you’re actually thinking about existence. It’s probably a sign that you’re human.
Being a human is hard, just like running is hard. On the cellular level, stress from thinking about being a semi-organized hunk of organic matter (emphasis on hunk) is interpreted in the same way as stress from a workout or strength training. Your brain interprets all of those little signals, from biomarkers like cortisol to muscle damage to existential doubt, and it spits out the answer to a question: How do I feel today?
Listen to that answer. We can’t always get blood tests to tell us what’s off (my guess is Vitamin D) or plan the perfect training session (definitely hill strides) or figure out the answer to the Universe (“C”). Operating in that uncertainty can be scary, and it’s something we are all dealing with in our own ways. So in your own head, make sure that you are giving yourself love for what you can do, rather than focusing on what you can’t.
Train to feel good, rather than pushing until you feel bad to validate the work you are doing. Go hard when it’s time, but embrace the swag of knowing when it isn’t. Eat lots and do some of the little things most of the time, just don’t put pressure on yourself to do all of the little things all of the time. Do that, and guess what?
You’ll still get injured.
But you’ll adapt to that stress, and you’ll come back stronger than ever.
David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they wrote a book called The Happy Runner.