When you think about different ways to reduce the chances of running injuries, a lot of options come to mind. These include stretching, strength training, reducing training errors, proper nutrition, shoe rotation, variety in terrain and extra sleep. Let's look at some of these in more detail.
Stretching is probably the most common stated prevention method, however numerous studies have concluded that there is no clear evidence that stretching either decreases or increases injury in athletes. That's not to say that it doesn't have it's place if someone is lacking the required range of motion, however it shouldn't be the cure-all answer that many people make it out to be. I would classify dynamic stretching as more of a warm up than the typical stretches you always see runners doing, and feel that can certainly have its place before a workout.
Strength training is another common method prescribed to reduce injury risk. As far as the research is concerned this is a much better option than stretching. A recent systemic review and meta-analysis on the effectiveness of exercise interventions to prevent sports injuries concluded that “Strength training reduced sports injuries to less than 1/3 and overuse injuries could be almost halved” (source). With the potential to lose significant training time to injuries it is definitely worth the effort of putting in a couple of Strength sessions per week.
Reducing Training Errors
The number one cause of running injuries would have to be training errors. Too much, too fast, too often, too soon. A proper training plan takes into consideration your current level of fitness and gradually increases the body’s capacity to meet the training load being asked of it, while allowing enough rest for it to recover, rebuild and be ready to tackle greater loads.
With a lot of research being done into improving running performance, new technology is being developed to help reduce the risk of injuries. Two newly developed methods are measuring heart rate variability and power meters.
Measuring Heart Rate Variability
Heart rate variability (HRV) is the variation in the time interval between heartbeats. It is measured by the variation in the beat-to-beat interval. Emerging research findings indicated that HRV may provide a reflection of autonomic nervous system (ANS) homeostasis, or the body's stress-recovery status. With overuse injuries, it is well recognised that an abnormal inflammatory response occurs within somatic tissue before pain is perceived. The ANS is primarily involved in the activation of pathways and neuromediators responsible for somatic tissue repair. By being able to recognise the signs of possible overuse injuries (as well as overtraining symptoms) before they become apparent, you will be able to modify upcoming training sessions and possibly prevent them from developing further.
HRV is not only useful with injury prevention, it can also help with results. A recent study involved two groups following the same training plan with one exception. HRV was used by one group; if the morning's HRV score was too low the session was skipped. The control group completed all training sessions as planned. In a subsequent time trial after eight weeks of training, the HRV group outperformed the control group - even though they completed less training sessions.
There are many apps available that can sync with bluetooth heart rate straps to get an accurate HRV reading. After using the app in the morning for a week to establish a baseline, the app will give you a score after each reading with advice on what type of training is suitable that day.
Another way to aid in listening to your body is through the use of a running power meter. Power meters for cycling have been around for quite a few years and have revolutionised the way that cyclists train. They provide an objective measurement of output independent of variables such as temperature, fatigue, illness. A power meter measures how much work (power) the body is producing as opposed to heart rate, which measures your body's response to training.
Power meters for runners are a recent development and while coaches and athletes are still finding out the best ways to incorporate the use of them into training plans, it is becoming clear that along with HR monitors and GPS they will become a very valuable tool for runners as well as cyclists.
I have been using a Stryd power meter since October last year and it is becoming more valuable to my training as I am learning the best ways to use it. Although they are not able to directly measure power, the Stryd power meter "uses revolutionary sensing technologies to measure a runner’s movement through 3D space and track the environmental conditions of the run. From that, it gives runners an accurate, real-time power number" (source). It might sound like magic but it works.
One way that the power meter can help is by allowing you to measure your running efficiency. By comparing the power output to your pace you get an efficiency index score. When you are fatigued or injured you running efficiency is affected. All things being equal, power will be higher when fatigued or injured due to the changes in gait brought on by limited ranges of motion as the body tries to protect itself. By looking at the power data from an early segment (to eliminate fatigue factors) of a regular running route done at the same pace, you can see if there is a difference from your baseline. If there is a decline in power then that is great as you are improving your efficiency at that pace. If there is an increase in power, or the same power for a slower pace, then you have to look at what the possible causes are. Overtraining or an injury are the most likely causes and you can then adjust your training plan to best manage that.
The takeaway message is simple... listen to your body and adjust your training plan accordingly.
It is better to be 10% undertrained going into a race than 1% overtrained, and the preemptive loss of a few days training is much better than weeks off if an injury is allowed to progress.
With runners often ignoring niggles and running when the body is over stressed it can sometimes be helpful to use technology to point out possible warning signs, sometimes before you would be able to notice them yourself.
If you have any questions regarding reducing your chance of running injuries, including the use of HRV or the use of a power meter for training, contact me for more information.