Last year when I surveyed hundreds of runners who visit middleagemarathoner.com, to no surprise, I found that injuries were the biggest obstacle faced by middle age runners. Coach Greg McMillan is currently conducting his own survey and he shared with me that his initial results showed a similar finding.
The purpose of this article is to provide four different strategies to help you avoid injuries. These aren’t the only four strategies you should use and you may already be using a few of these strategies yourself, but hopefully I can share something new that you can try to further injury proof your body.
Background: For the longest time, I felt like I was a slave to nagging injuries. It was one of my biggest challenge that was preventing me from regularly racing 1/2 and full marathons. Being a busy professional, I simply didn’t have time to implement a comprehensive injury prevention routine. About 99%+ of the middle age runners whom I coach don’t have a lot of time either. However, it’s important for any runner to engage in some kind of program that involves some of the strategy that I discuss in this article.
Over the years, I worked with my primary physician, physical therapist, athletic trainers and running coaches in addition to completing a lot of my own research and trial/error to finally develop my own injury proofing regime. There’s not a “one size fits all” solution when it comes to middle age runners and injury avoidance.
Bottomline, I eventually “cracked the code” of injury-free running. Since 2012, I have been injury free.
Note, that I didn’t say I have been pain free. There’s a difference and it’s how you manage your pain that greatly contributes to remaining injury free. It’s remaining injury free that allows runners to build consistency and reach their goals.
Following are four of the strategies that I use in parallel to remain injury free.
1. 3 Too’s – I’ve read this from a few sources as the leading cause of running injuries.
a) Too much – mileage – depending on your base, athletic ability and running experience, running too much weekly mileage can lead to injuries.
b) Too soon – weekly increases should be limited to no more than 10% of the previous weeks’ total mileage. Increase your weekly and monthly running totals gradually.
c) Too much – change – although it’s important to vary your weekly workouts (discussed below), going from the couch to running every day and also completing heavy conditioning workouts will likely lead to injury. It’s important to gradually (over several months) increase the intensity of your training. Your body needs to be ready to increase mileage, run intervals or perform intense conditioning workouts.
2. Vary the intensity, mileage & route of your workouts. This is essential in my training plans. Changing pace, intensity and duration of runs will help ensure you improve. You can’t expect to improve if you run the same route at the same pace, day after day. Simply varying the routes or running surfaces is one of the best ways to spread out the various forces on your lower body so that no one tissue or tendon gets overworked.
3. Practice proactive recovery – along with the 3 too’s, you should regularly use a foam roller and an occasional ice bath. I use compression socks to help me recover from both hard and long runs. However, to truly be proactive, you need to complete workouts at a level where your body is ready. This means scheduling workouts based on other workouts you will or have already completed that same week or in previous weeks. Coach Jay Johnson says, “keep the hard days hard and easy days easy.” I also recommend taking at least 1 day off (no exercise) per week.
4. Listen to your body – along with being proactive you need to also be reactive with your recovery. If something you’re doing is resulting in pain that forces you to alter your running form, I strongly recommend stopping that particular activity, identifying the root cause of the pain and seeking professional medical advice to eliminate the issue. If the rigors of training for a particular race like a full or half marathon become too painful, you may need to postpone the race or simply run a shorter race like a 5 or 10k.
BONUS: 5. Use a coach – A good running coach can provide you with a training plan that meets your athletic ability, goals and helps to prevent injury. Sometimes I adjust scheduled long runs, speed work and some of the scheduled high-intensity training. This allows more time to rid yourselft of the pain and get healthy so you can get back to your training.
If you’re not doing so already, implementing these strategies will make a big difference to your performances over time. Although each strategy isn’t a “cure-all.” If after working these strategies into your plan and you still are fighting the injury bug, then I would replace one of the days you run with a cross-fit/aerobic (eliptical, stationary bike or swimming) and conditioning workout. If after making this change you still continue to get hurt, then I would visit with a medical professional and if you’re not with one already, I would speak with a coach who can take a look at your training and suggest some alternative workouts that may help you train injury free.
In this article, I will discuss how to use a foam roller and why a foam roller is my “secret weapon.” Foam rollers are great tools for both injury prevention and performance enhancement. Foam rollers are the poor man’s massage therapist. They can provide soft tissue work to help many athletes, in any setting. Sources & references that I used to help me complete this article are listed at the end of the article.
A foam roller is simply a cylindrical piece of extruded hard-celled foam. Think swimming pool noodles, but more dense and larger in diameter. They usually come in one-foot or three-foot lengths. I find the three-foot model works better, because I can roll on both legs at once, but it obviously takes up more space.
Foam Roller Basics
Foam rolling is a form of self-massage that helps to relieve muscle tightness. Rolling applies pressure to specific points on your body that helps loosen the muscles and assist in returning them to normal function. When I think of normal function, this means your muscles are elastic, healthy, and ready to perform at a moment’s notice.
However, for me, a foam roller is more than a tool to rehab injured muscles, I believe it should be used by healthy runner’s to warm-up and cool-down after workouts. Rolling properly on foam can improve circulation. Rolling breaks down knots that can limit range of motion and it can prepare muscles for stretching. Foam rollers, when used correctly, can release tension and tightness between the muscles and the fascia (which surrounds the muscle or group of muscles). Foam rolling, as well as dynamic stretching (after a run or after foam rolling) can help improve flexibility and range of movement, and actually decrease the risk of injury.
It’s important to move slowly and even stop and hold the roller on tender spots. Ensure you breathe through the discomfort. If an area really hurts, go gentle on it and support some of your weight elsewhere, using your arms. One thing you want to avoid is rolling on an injured or inflamed area of your body. For this reason, I recommend to those that I coach to go indirect before direct. This means that if you find a spot that’s particularly sensitive, ease away from that area by a few inches. Take some time to work a more localized region around areas where you feel discomfort. Work these “neighboring areas” before using larger, sweeping motions. Eventually work to keep pressure on the affected area with the foam roller. You can add more “weight” as the muscle relaxes by stacking your legs. With a foam roller, you can basically work to your own pain threshold.
I know many people that don’t want to roll, because they think it will hurt. This may be true, especially when you start rolling for the first time. There can be some discomfort, but this is often because these muscles are tight. Once loosened, rolling is rarely painful. Instead it feels very good on tired muscles.
The foam roller is a critical part of my marathon training. Just remember that your legs are “round” and not “flat.” This means that you shouldn’t roll on one side of your leg. Work all sides of your legs. Especially the IT Band (discussed below).
If you’re new to foam rolling, start out gradually with lighter pressure and a shorter session. In time you can progress to more intense pressure.
While foam rolling can be done both before and after a workout, pre-workout sessions should focus on problem areas whereas post-workout sessions can focus on all of the muscle groups worked that day.
The key to foam rolling is to use your body weight on the roller.
I’ve attached a few videos from various sources to help demonstrate how to properly use a foam roller. These are my favorite foam roller exercises:
1. Warm-Up – Use the foam roller prior to running. Complete light rolling with long, sweeping strokes to the long muscle groups like the calves, adductors, and quadriceps. Focus on areas that are particularly stiff. Be careful not to roll on your lower back. If you feel stiff, rolling increases blood flow and helps to relieve muscle tightness that can interfere with proper running form.
2. Cool-Down – Use the foam roller after running and stretching. Similar to warm-up, lightly roll with long strokes all around your legs. You can roll on your upper back because the shoulder blades and muscles protect the spine, whereas there is no similar protect if you were to roll the lower back. Concentrate rolling on areas that seem particularly stiff or sore.
3. Calves – This is the most common foam roller exercise along with hamstrings. Place the roller under one or both of your calves. If only doing one calf at a time, rest your other foot on the floor. Roll all the way from your ankle to below the knee. As discussed above, your legs are round and not flat, so rotate your legs in and then out. If you want to add pressure, simply stack your ankles.
4. Hamstrings – Along with calves, another very common rolling exercise. Place the roller under your thighs. Roll from the knees to the buttocks. To increase the pressure, roll one leg at time while turning your leg in and out.
5. Front Shins – If you are suffering from shin splints, then you should roll on the outside part of your lower leg (the part associated with shin splints). Besides biomechanical inefficiencies, the primary reason for shin splints is a muscle imbalance in your lower legs. Shin splints typically occur with beginner runners or a runner who’s returning from a lengthy layoff. When running on hard surfaces with worn out or ill-fitting shoes, the weaker front “Anterior Tibial” muscles are overloaded or shocked by the stronger calf muscles.
In this article, I want focus less on rehab and more on how to use a foam roller for the Anterior Tibial muscle. If you are suffering from shin splints, take this exercise slow to prevent further injury. Start at the top (near the knee) and work down then up again along the outside front of your leg. You can do this in a kneeling position or a position similar to a plank. However, as with most foam rolling stretches, you might need to adjust to target the muscle (and not fall over in the process).
6. Iliotibial (IT) Band – Until I successfully loosened up my IT Band with the foam roller, I experienced what felt like, never ending foot and ankle discomfort. My Doctor had confirmed that I wasn’t injured. However, it was my Physical Therapist who connected my tight IT Band as the root cause of my aches and then showed me how to properly roll on and loosen up my IT Band. After working on this for a few weeks, I noticed that the foot and ankle pain that I had experienced for 2+ years, finally went away.
To work the IT Band, lie on your side with the roller near your hip, rest your other legs foot on the floor and then move along your outer thigh. For most runners, working the IT Band with a foam roller is particularly painful. This is because the IT band is often too tight. IT Band injuries are more painful than rolling over a tight IT Band, so it’s well worth your time to perform this exercise regularly. If you don’t feel much discomfort when performing this exercise, then try increasing the pressure by stacking your legs. When you feel discomfort, go slow and let IT Band loosen itself. Don’t forget to breath while performing this exercise.
7. Quads – Because your legs are round and not flat, we must also roll on our quads. This is a simple, but slightly awkward exercise. Lie on your stomach with a roller placed under the front of your thigh and slowly roll up and down from the bottom of your hip to the top of your knee.
8. Inner Thighs or Adductors – I rarely perform this exercise, but I do know others who work their adductors to rehab groin injuries or strains. Lie on your stomach with one leg extended slightly to the side, knee bent. Place the roller in the groin area of the extended leg and roll the inner thigh. You’ll have to brace yourself with your elbows (like a plank) to complete this roll.
9. Gluteus or buttocks – your butt does a lot of work when you’re running, so you need to treat it with some foam rolling. You should also take the time to roll on your lower back. Make sure that you roll slowly. You get more benefit from the foam roller when you go slow over the tightest or most painful areas.
10. Other areas to roll – neck, hip flexors and feet
Assessing Effectiveness of your foam rolling efforts
As discussed, it can be hard to use a foam roller, especially if it’s slightly painful. Massage work and even some stretching can also be uncomfortable, especially with stiff or “knotted” muscles. Therefore, it is important that runners learn to distinguish between a moderate level of discomfort related to working a muscle’s trigger point and pain or discomfort that can lead to injury.
When you complete a foam rolling session, you should feel better, not worse. The roller should never cause bruising. The first thing you should do after foam rolling is ask yourself how your muscles feel. Once you start feeling the awesome effects of rolling, you’ll want to make it a part of your regular training regime. Remember to be patient. Becoming mobile and strong requires a long-term commitment to foam roller deep-tissue massage and other recovery work.
If you continue to feel pain after your foam rolling sessions, you should visit a physical therapist. You may have an injury or it might be possible that you’re simply not rolling correctly.
In addition to my vast experience of training with a foam roller, I used the following sources & references to assist me in completing this article on how to use a foam roller.
Peak Fitness by Mercola.com
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Worn-out or ill-fitting shoes are a leading cause of injury with runners. Wear and tear in older running shoes is not always apparent to the naked eye. If you want to stay healthy, fit, and injury-free, it’s an absolute must to invest in a good pair of running shoes. This article will walk you through a basic process to find and purchase a good pair of new running shoes.
Don’t skimp on your running shoe purchase. You may not want your kids to spend $150+ on basketball shoes or fancy sneakers, but I urge you not to worry about the cost of a good pair of running shoes that are comfortable and fit. Even if you have to spend $150 or more (which is not always the case), it will be an investment in your good health that’s worth it. I can assure you that the cost of good running shoes is much less than the money and time spent seeing a doctor due to injury.
See the experts at your local specialty running shop where the staff members are experienced and knowledgeable about fitting beginner and advanced runners of all different body sizes and various running styles. Don’t go to a big-box sporting good store or department store. I have spent thousands of dollars over the years, purchasing running shoes and accessories for myself and my family. Your local running store can help you successfully navigate the running shoe purchase process. The sales people at specialty stores are knowledgeable about all the latest brands and running shoe styles. You should think of them as consultants. When you buy running shoes from a local specialty store, you not only help yourself, but you are helping to support an integral part of the community. These companies typically sponsor local running races and fitness events. They also sponsor or coordinate training groups to ready runners for these events. Oftentimes, running stores partner with both middle and high schools to help young and aspiring runners have access to affordable training and racing shoes. Staffed by runners who are knowledgeable about all the latest shoe models, your local specialty running store plays an invaluable role in promoting healthy lifestyles within their communities.
Have a good understanding of your Running Profile & Style
First, you should to tell the salesperson what you will be doing with your shoes. Specifically, how many miles per week you intend to run and what surface (trails, asphalt, or a treadmill) will you be running? Lastly are you training for a race?
Since a high school or college track runner is different than a middle-aged marathoner, it’s important to take into account your body type. The type of running shoe for a bigger person is typically different than that for a person with a smaller frame.
Next, it’s important to know how you run. Your gait should be observed while on a treadmill. A specialty running store employee will video tape you on the treadmill to determine where your foot first comes in contact with the ground. Is it the outside or inside of the heel? Also, they will look to see if the point of initial contact is mainly through the forefoot (as for many athletes and sprinters). If you’re a forefoot runner, you should be wearing a running shoe which has most of its cushion in front. However, you’ll need a different shoe if you run from heel to toe (you’re a heel striker).
(photos are taken from Runnersworld.com (shoe finder resource))
While at the running store, be sure to identify any injuries you may have developed from running. Common injuries like shin splints, blisters, tendonitis and other common injuries experienced by runners can be caused in part by running in the wrong running shoes for your particular running style, gait, body size, etc.
Understand Your Arch
The shape of your arch may help determine whether you pronate (roll to the inside of the foot), supinate (roll to the outside of the foot) or remain neutral when you run. Again, if you’re not certain what kind of arch you have (it may not be completely flat or high), the experts at the running store can help. They may give you a “wet test” by moistening the bottom of your foot and having you make an imprint on a dark piece of paper to determine your arch type. A good physical therapist or sports medicine doctor should also be able to help you determine your arch type, but I would simply start with the expert at the shoe store unless you had been injured and were seeking a diagnosis.
For 30 years, I didn’t over pronate and never required additional stability in my shoes. I have a fairly normal foot and gait analysis showed normal pronation. However, about 3 years ago, after finishing the Chicago Marathon, I began experiencing ankle and foot pain a month after the race. The pain subsided, but recurred the following Summer when I was training for the Portland Marathon. I thought that the pain was a result of overtraining. However, after my physical therapist completed a gait analysis on a treadmill, he concluded that I was over pronating. I didn’t think that I was a pronator, but in my mid 40s, my running style and body size were different than 25 years before. The cure for my injury wasn’t simply to slow down, I needed orthotics and I needed to improve the stability of my shoes. It took me 2.5 months to become used to orthotics, but now I can’t wear any kind of shoe without inserts. I remained injury free training for my last two marathons in part because I now wear orthotics.
Bottomline, understanding your arch and whether or not you pronate is a part of the information necessary to determine which shoe models you should try. The staff at your running store will also observe your gait analysis, running style, injury history and body profile. These factors will merely help them select a few shoes for you to try. Ultimately, the comfort of the shoe once you put your foot in it will determine what you purchase.
Test your foot 360 degrees inside the shoe
When you are being fitted for running shoes, you need to test more than the toe box. When you stand, your whole foot should fit on the platform of the shoe. Feel all the way around the foot to make sure that all the bones are sitting on the shoe platform. The shoe shouldn’t squeeze the foot. The entire width of the foot should be touching the base of the shoe. It’s really important that you pay attention to shoe width. Shoes don’t just come in different lengths, but also different widths as well. You can buy some shoes in widths, but be aware also that shoe width can vary from brand to brand, and sometimes it varies among models within a brand. I always look for a shoe that fits snug but comfortably through the heel and midfoot. Also, you don’t want your foot to be squeezed excessively, especially in the forefoot.
Shop later in the day
Just like when you run, feet swell during the day. Trying running shoes when your feet are at their largest. This will give you the most comfortable and accurate fit.
Bring your old shoes
When you are shopping for a new pair of running shoes, I always bring my old ones along, This can help the salesperson determine what kind of running shoes you need. One strategy is for the salesperson to look at the way your old shoe is worn in order to confirm your running profile.
It’s actually possible for your feet to change as you age. Every year, get your foot measured to confirm your size. This is the critical first step when seeking a comfortable fit. It’s also possible, that that the size you wore in a Saucony, Nike, Asics or whatever shoe that you’ve been wearing, may not be the size you will wear in a New Balance, Brooks, Adidas or other brand of shoe. The experts at the running store that I support recommend getting a running shoe that’s a half size larger than their street shoes. The extra room allows your foot to flex, swell a little and your toes to move forward with each stride.
Probably more common than change in size, is change in shape of our feet over time. As discussed above, I didn’t pronate much for many years, but my physical therapist pointed out that in my middle age, my foot had probably flattened a bit, which then necessitated not only a change in the type of shoe for more stability, but also the need for orthotics.
How should shoes fit?
Make sure the shoes are comfortable in the store. If they are not, they won’t be comfortable for running. The shoe should feel comfortable as soon as you put it on. Try different shoes if something doesn’t feel right. I’ve never been to a running store where I felt pressured to take one of the first pair of shoes that they offered. Ask if you can go for a short (50 yard) jog in the shoes.
Other Do’s and Don’ts of choosing a new running shoe
Go shopping for new running in the socks you intend to run. Also bring the shoe inserts or orthotics.
Never buy a shoe for its looks or because someone raved about it in a running magazine or some online forum. Also, don’t simply seek the lightest or most cushioned shoe. It’s really important to follow the above steps in order to ensure you try the best shoe(s) for your running style and profile.
Once a salesperson observes your running gait, narrows down the type of runner you are and the type of foot you have, he or she should be able to present several different shoes for you. Take your time trying on and testing shoes. Ensure you run 50+ yards in the shoe and walk around a little before you complete your purchase. Try shoes on both feet and take them for a test run around the shop, on a treadmill or on the sidewalk. Purchase the shoe that feels best when you’re running in it, not just standing.
Plan on trying about 3-6 pairs of shoes. Try shoes that are in your desired price range, but also some that may be a little more expensive. Don’t buy for price, instead, buy the shoe that feels the best. If you have to spend a little more to ensure that you can run comfortably and remain injury free, then it’s a good investment.
Be wary of someone pushing insoles. Some stores may try to sell you insoles/inserts with your shoes. Not that these are a bad thing, but you may not need anything else. If it’s your first pair of running shoes, try running without additional insoles / inserts and see how you feel. If you later become injured, a Doctor or physical therapist, either of whom specialize in dealing with runners, may prescribe inserts or some other appropriate solution.
The Test Drive is the most critical step in this entire process. If there is anything that’s rubbing you wrong or doesn’t feel right, then you shouldn’t purchase that shoe.
Whenever I buy new shoes, I write the date I start to use them on the inside tongue. Don’t run in shoes longer than six months unless you are rotating shoes, which I recommend. If you can, track your mileage in each shoe and make it a point to look at their condition at 350 miles. I don’t recommend running in shoes that have over 500 miles because shoes at this mileage are worn down and can leave you at a high risk of injury if you continue to run in them.
There is no one best shoe for anyone. There are plenty of quality running shoes that will provide your feet the unique support and fit you require. Go local and plan on trying as many different pairs of running shoes until you feel comfortable. Another great thing about local specialty running stores is that they usually have a 30 day return period. In my experience, if I’m not happy with a shoe for whatever reason, I can take it back to my specialty running store within 30 days and they’ll provide me credit for the original purchase value of the shoe. I don’t think I can get this same return policy from an online retailer.
Final Words of Wisdom….Go Local & Avoid Online Shoe Retailers
You’re unique and especially so are your feet. A high school runner is different than a person in their mid 40s – 50s. Having your gait and foot type analyzed, will help to ensure you get the feel, fit, cushion, and support you require to help ensure you can run injury free. Support the experts at your local specialty running shoe store. They are a vital part of your running community. They are essential in the proper development of young runners and promoting health and fitness in your town.
Staying injury free with your running is critical if you want to reach your goals. If you’re injured, you can’t train and if you can’t train, you won’t run achieve your goals. My marathon training plans incorporate at a minimum, the following 5 steps. In a separate checklist, I outline in detail 8 things that you can immediately implement to ensure you remain injury free.
1. Rest or decrease your mileage every 3-4 weeks. While training for a race, you should keep track of your weekly mileage. This is especially important while gradually increasing mileage. The body needs some rest from the pounding of running to stay injury free. Every 3-4 weeks, depending how strong you are feeling, reduce your mileage for the week. I suggest reducing by 25% for intermediate runners and around 40% for beginners.
2. Remember weekly mileage. No matter how strong you are feeling, it’s not recommended to increase weekly mileage by more than 10% per week. Also, I do not think it’s wise to increase the length of the weekly long run by more than 2-3 miles each week. I’ve made this mistake before when I was training for the Portland Marathon a few years ago. Sudden mileage increases in excess of 10% each week can increase injury risk. To be able to avoid injuries while you add miles, take an additional day off every 4 weeks. It helps you complete scheduled long runs, but incorporating rest into the week will help your body heal faster.
3. Warm-up at the beginning of training runs. When you start each run or interval session with some light stretching in addition to 4-5 minute jog. You may also transition in to the faster pace with 4 short accelerations/strides. When the legs warm-up, improve your pace gradually. Doing strides and incorporating some jogging or recovery for no more than 30 seconds between sets of 2 x 100m, you will soon have the ability to hit your target pace during track workouts
4. Regularly run fast. This doesn’t mean each time you head out, go fast. Rather, you must regularly complete track and hill work. Should you only do speed work monthly, the body won’t get used to faster running. One speed workout each week will help you get faster and get in better shape, injury free. Don’t forget, whenever you do speed work, always warm-up first.
5. Staying injury free can best be accomplished by stretching right after runs. Stretching right after a run, when your muscles are warm, can help combat all the contractions you have with each and every step. Following a high exertion effort, try to avoid stretching intensely. Stretching a tired muscle an excessive amount could tear muscle tissue and basically increase the time to recover. After hard workouts I recommend that you stretch lightly.