Spring is almost here and the running season is fully underway and training regimes are increasing in intensity for many. But just as your running form gets better and better, there is also a risk that injuries begin to become more of an issue. Together with some of Sweden’s most eminent running experts, Andreas Bjurman, CEO of Access Rehab and running legend Malin Ewerlöf, Rehband has been studying the best way for you to step up your training without suffering from injury.
The trend for running has taken Sweden by storm, but so have running-related injuries. According to Runner’s World’s annual survey, 72% of all runners have sustained some sort of injury during the past 12 months. It is indisputable that the rate of injury is high and Access Rehab, which was one of the first clinics to specialize in running-related injuries, has observed the increase of such injuries parallel to the increase in running’s popularity. Last year alone, 20,000 sport-related treatments were carried out in their three clinics.
Both Andreas and Malin have noticed that people are taking their training more seriously and are increasingly seeking help. Nowadays, the average runner does some research and is more knowledgeable about both running and injuries.
“It is a clear stage of the trend cycle; initially, the focus is on running but this then develops into a growing awareness of the body”, says Andreas.
You can’t fool your body
Malin no longer competes at the elite level and now devotes her time to delivering lectures and to coaching runners. People like Malin, who have been running at the highest level for large parts of their lives, have a basic level of fitness and conditioning within their bodies. Recent converts to running seldom have the same physical ability, in terms of strength and fitness. Many begin from zero and lack the knowledge of how to exercise correctly or how to listen to what their body is telling them.
Many have set their training targets in readiness for Lidingöloppet and are following a tight schedule that will take them all the way to the finish line. One of the most common mistakes that Malin encounters is that runners set their targets and then train systematically until they reach them, without taking account of their body’s training capacity and fitness level, potential for injury or of other things that are going on in their life.
“A training program should serve as a guide or an objective, but it is the body that must be in charge; not the head or a training program”, says Malin.
The key to a successful long-term running training program, and its gradual escalation in intensity, is to learn how to listen to your body and to learn how much it is capable of. The desire often exceeds what the body is able to cope with. Malin believes that demanding too much of the body is the cause of many injuries.
“If you become injured, it doesn’t matter what it says in your training program. It is only the completed training that delivers results”, continues Malin.
“Another common cause of injury is failure to plan in the long-term. As a result of the increased popularity of running, you now have to register for competitions well in advance if you are to secure one of the desirable starting positions. Ten years ago, it was pretty much possible to just turn up and register at the starting line. Nowadays, however, you often have to register up to a year in advance of the race, and this gives you plenty of time to make your preparations and to establish a long-term plan for your development”, says Malin.
Preventive training with variation
We asked Andreas and Malin what the secret is. How do you become a successful runner? Their answer is simple; to be good at running, you have to run. But, in practice, there’s more to it than this. If you still want to be able to run in several years’ time, Andreas recommends that you let your body adjust to the increased strain; for example, by combining running with other sports, such as cycling.
Many keep on training with the method they are already good at and in the way that they think is fun. This increases the strengths they already possess, but any potential weaknesses will also become gradually weaker. In time, the difference between strengths and weaknesses becomes too large, which can result in injury. In order to prevent injury, or to recover following an injury, you don’t need to be better at what you’re already good at; you need, instead, to work on your weaknesses.
Malin has known many runners who have managed to transform an injury into something positive. By adopting alternative training methods and focusing on improving weaknesses, it is possible to return as an even stronger athlete.
“Quite simply, it’s a matter of having to put up with doing the boring exercises in order to be able to continue to do those that are fun”, she says.
Alternative training is an effective way of maintaining your fitness level and of accelerating the healing process. There is an almost unlimited number of alternative training forms if you should need to take a break from running; for example, cycling, swimming, gym work and fitness machines, such as step, cross-trainers or rowing machines.
“It is great that there are so many ways to achieve success; you just have to find a way that is appropriate to the phase of life you find yourself in”, says Malin.
“The problem of being injured is that it can be difficult to maintain your fitness and conditioning”, says Andreas.
If you have sustained an injury, he recommends combining general training, which doesn’t exert a strain on the affected area, with training that is appropriate to the specific injury. This both accelerates the healing process and helps to prevent a recurrence of the injury.
By doing your exercises properly, it is possible to return from an injury more quickly, but not everyone thinks that rehabilitative exercises are all that much fun. Because the time we have for training is limited, it is tempting to devote our training time to doing that which we enjoy. It is easy to forget to look at the bigger picture; that we need to do the boring things in order to be able to do the fun things.
This is behavior that Andreas sees all too often at the clinic.
“Most people do not find it difficult to understand that there is a correct way to train; the difficulty is in actually applying this understanding to the reality of their training. It is easy to tell people what they should be doing, but they won’t always follow this advice, and this is just a part of human nature. Many will do their rehabilitative exercises for the first week but then it becomes increasingly intermittent and more time will instead be spent out running, which people perceive as being more fun. It doesn’t then take too long for them to end up back on the treatment table”, he says.
“The pain may actually be of great help”, continues Andreas. “It can often act as a motivating tool and as a reminder that they need to be doing their rehabilitative exercises. As soon as the pain disappears, it is easier to forget about doing the exercises.”
Listen to your body’s signals
The most common injuries are to the calf muscles, Achilles tendons, lower back, hips and knees. At the beginning of the season, many will experience a general pain which is in line with the increasing intensity of training and which turns into a pain that is more specific. Injury that is connected to exercise often sneaks up on people, but being aware of the body’s signals can result in the early identification of an injury, allowing the training schedule to be readjusted.
“Pain is the body’s warning signal and it is important to take notice of it, but this doesn’t mean that we always have to seek medical help”, says Malin. There is much benefit to be gained in paying attention to how the pain changes in character and when it is felt. If the pain increases, this is a clear indication that an injury is heading in the wrong direction.
Seeking help at an early stage often makes it easier to do something about the injury. If an injury continues to develop, it can lead to pain in other places. This leads to the treatment of the consequences of the injury and not of the cause, and this makes the treatment process more complicated.
The risk of injury is not only affected by the way we train; anything from the food we eat, the shoes we walk in, and the way we sit at work can all play a part. It is easy to forget the significance of our life outside of the training program.
“This is why top sportsmen and women do nothing but train and sleep”, says Andreas, laughing. “Your body is always being subjected to stress and strain, and your training regime and lifestyle are inextricably connected. Even if you don’t actively work on your conditioning, your body is still subjected to strain for many hours”, he says.
Sports supports make a difference
Many of the people that Malin coaches suffer from knee problems and use knee supports to get additional stability, heat and compression, and she sees a clear benefit. Back supports are another product that Malin regards as beneficial, especially for office workers who spend a lot of time sitting and may need some extra support in the lumbar region when out running. Malin herself has managed to come through her career with her knees intact. For Malin, however, it has always been her Achilles tendons that have caused her problems. She has been using Rehband’s heel wedge inserts for ten years and, for her, they have become so important that she doesn’t leave home without having a pair in her shoes.
“I have had so many problems with my Achilles tendons before so I now take steps to prevent both pain and future injury, so that I won’t have to stop doing what I love. By preventing injury, I’m remaining one step ahead”, says Malin.