Training for running technique, strength and fitness to avoid injuries

With so much focus on getting the miles into your legs it’s easy to lose sight of the importance of developing the strength and coordination necessary to run with good technique.  Choosing a training approach to maximize your performance levels or achieve a goal such as completing a half-marathon that also mitigates the risk of developing an injury is no easy task.  As I explain in my method of training, the development of the strength and coordination to run with sound technique is of equal importance to increasing training volume and intensity.  Further, I believe your technical ability should be the primary factor involved in managing your training load.  Evidence of technical weakness can be a trigger to back things off or maintain a level and proven advances in technique should become the trigger for upping the load and intensity of training.

Respect for tradition

Training programs for long distance runners have been traditionally oriented around running incrementally more miles to build fitness.  This combined with the regular inclusion of higher intensity training sessions to develop specific physiological adaptations are the bread and milk of thousands of runners around the globe.  These harder running sessions or workouts are designed to improve your ability to sustain good pace over long periods (tempo or lactate threshold training), develop speed through faster shorter repetitions (e.g. 100s, 150,s 200s, 300s, 400s) and optimize high-end cardiovascular capacity by running longer intervals (e.g. 800-1600m) at or faster than 5km race pace.

This type of training approach has been well tested over a long period, and I’m not about to question the physiological benefits of training this way – it works.  However, when it comes to training runners who don’t have optimal running technique or biomechanics things can start to break down.  Good coaches will recognise this and make adjustments so that the training they design works for individual athletes.  What I’m thinking of is the common situation when the training program demand begins to exceed the technical capacity and strength of the runner.  That is, the training is either too intense or too long (or both) for the athlete to sustain good technique for the duration of the running session.  At this point the risk of injury increases significantly.  For a runner training with a coach this will be a relatively easy to identify, and if the coach is present they can stop a training session earlier than planned if technique starts to break down.

Strategies to avoid getting injured by training too intensely
But what about regular runners who train without coaches?  How do you know when the training program you’ve been following is doing more harm than good?  Unfortunately there are no easy answers; but there is some useful information available that can help keep you out of trouble.  As you become more experienced you’ll be able to monitor your response to training much better than when you’re starting out, but before then try the following:

Avoid training at close to your maximum heart rate

As a beginner, do not train at close to your maximum heart rate – as a rule of thumb this is 220 minus your age, but individual variances are considerable so don’t take that as gospel.  Use a heart rate monitor to keep an eye on your exertion levels and ensure your heart rate remains in a comfortable zone.  On longer or easier runs this should be less than 75% of your predicted maximum heart rate.  If your heart rate is too high you will find it difficult to run with good technique.  Try any skill related activity when you’re huffing and puffing and you’ll find it gets much harder, running is no exception.

Don’t train harder than indicated by current fitness

Match the speed of your training runs for each type of training to a recent race performance of time trial.  This works on a similar basis to the guidance above, except a lot of the guess work has been taken out of the equation by legendary American coach Jack Daniels.  In his book Daniels’ Running Formula (2005) he includes detailed tables that tell you how fast you should run for each type of training you do in your program.  I’ve followed that advice pretty closely for the past three years and I’ve found the tables extremely accurate.  The paces he describes (if you stick to them) will allow you to complete each running session – what you need to do if you’re to maximize the benefits of training.  Pretty much any time I have cheated and tried to run a session faster than predicted by the tables, I will find myself cutting it short.  Note: with the advent of GPS watches you’re able to monitor pace on longer runs, tempo training and intervals much easier than in the past.  Personally I like my stopwatch, but if you have a GPS unit, Daniels’ training paces should be programmed into it.

This is a smart way to train as it will likely get you to performance levels that are close to your current physical capabilities, hopefully without getting injured.  So that’s the end of the story right?  Well not quite, there is more to running better than just accumulating more miles and trying to run faster in training.  What you should consider doing at the very beginning and on a regular basis is check to see that your technique is sound and/or hasn’t deteriorated under heavy training loads.    If it isn’t perfect, then you have another goal to add to your training and some additional strength and coordination work you should do to continually improve your running technique.  Even if you’re a gun runner, you should always be monitoring your technique to ensure bad habits don’t creep in.  The more intense and voluminous your training the more likely this is to happen.

Caution: if your technique has a major flaw even training smart can still lead to injury
If you’re just starting out then the point at which you can’t sustain good technique is likely to come much sooner than you think.  It might even be in the first five minutes of your first jog.  To a certain extent just running regularly will help you run a little better – as your fitness improves you’ll be able to be more in control of how you run.  But if you’re more in control of something that isn’t exactly good technique then you’re additional cardiovascular fitness might lead you quickly to injury.  This is why you should get some advice or analyze your running on video in the early stages of any training program.  If you’re beginning a running program for the first time or coming back from a long break it makes a lot of sense to make your strength training just as important as your running.
Note: strength training does not need to be done in the gym. Most foundation strength training exercises can be performed with body weight and no equipment
Long distance running is also a physical activity that is much more reliant on good strength and coordination then many people would first think.  There is a big difference between being cardiovascular “fit” and being able to run at good pace for sustained periods.  So you should be filling up your cardio tank in training, but don’t neglect simultaneously attending to the strength and efficiency of your tendons and muscles.  If you train for strength, coordination and technique as well as fitness, then you have a much greater chance of avoiding injury and achieving consistently better performance levels.

So how often and quickly should you add training volume and intensity into your program?  The simple but annoying answer is: when you’re ready.  If you have a coach this is something you can work out together by observing and discussing how well you are completing and recovering from the prescribed training.  Jack Daniels also has some helpful advice here; he advocates not increasing training paces or intensity until you have proven your body has reached a new level of fitness and strength in a better race or time trial performance.  This is not a bad rule of thumb and one that I follow pretty closely.

Focus on building progressive fitness, strength and technical plateaus
Another way to look at the problem of building up your training is to think of the accumulation of training as a series of plateaus rather than a linear progression.  By this I mean the old adage of being able to add 10% to your mileage week after week should be avoided.  Following that advice would have you running 100 miles per week in a much short timeframe than you might think.  But the reality is you’re likely to succumb to injury well before you hit the rarified air of elite training volumes.  Remember, even talented elite runners take many years to build up the strength and resilience to be able to absorb that type of training volume.

Why not spend six or eight weeks at a particular level of mileage and then step things up?  Learning to master your running mechanics at a particular volume and intensity of training is a smart thing to do.  Using this line of thinking you could probably assume your technique is relatively sound after a period of continuous running without injury of at least twelve months.  Try to think about your running in terms of years rather than weeks and months, mastering running takes time and you need to be patient.  Break the year up into 6 – 9 training blocks or plateaus that allow you to slowly build volume and intensity.

Three components of running fitness

Each one of these training blocks should also provide a logical point to check that your technique remains sound and or to begin working on another specific area of improvement.  Just as you look for new training stimulus in your running so should you add additional challenges and different strength training exercises into your overall program.  By regularly assessing your running technique you have the information needed to target your strength and coordination training to eliminate any weaknesses.  This builds your capacity to run faster and soak up more training volume.  If you think of running fitness as being made up of three interrelated components: fitness, coordination and strength and train your body to harmonize these elements, then you will not go too far wrong in your training.

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