Too much, too soon – that’s what gets you injured. But when your heart is set on something, it can be hard to heed the messages your body is sending. For some expert local advice, Verne Maree chats to two elite athletes – Aussie Suzy Walsham and Kiwi Ben Pulham – and, for good measure, also gets a couple of pointers from Sydneysider physiotherapist Simon Raftery.
When I ask Suzy to tell me about her injuries, she laughs and says, “How much time do you have?” She describes herself as a very “fragile” athlete who was usually injured for at least three months of every year that she spent racing on the track. “It’s better now that I’m focused on stair-racing,” she says – Suzy is the current world champion stair-racer – “but I still get injured if I do too much running.”
For those who want the gory details, her litany of injury woes includes: “14 stress fractures (femur, fibula and tibia), a broken foot (it broke during a race), a dropped metatarsal, two or three calf strains or pulls per year, several hamstring strains and an achilles injury.”
Is injury inevitable?
According to Suzy – and she should know! – injuries are generally due to a combination of overtraining, incorrect technique or biomechanics, inadequate rest and recovery, poor diet, and not dealing properly with niggles when they first appear.
“I’ve never met an elite athlete who hasn’t been injured at some point in their career,” says Suzy. “When you’re pushing your body to the maximum, it’s not surprising that things break down from time to time.”
Though Ben believes there are a number of things that runners of all levels can do to lower their chances of injury – especially those who run purely for fitness or pleasure – he agrees that it’s pretty inevitable that an elite runner will suffer injury at some point. In his own ten years as an elite triathlete, he says, he suffered from typically overuse-related injuries like runner’s knee and iliotibial-band syndrome.
“But I always took a conservative approach to injury: I figured it was better to take a day off in order to avoid a week off, or a week off to avoid a month off. This approach served me well and for the most part, I was able to train very consistently for 10 years.”
Simon reckons that runner’s knee and shin splints are the two most common problems. Correct diagnosis from a sports doctor or physiotherapist is extremely important, he says.
“With shin splints, for instance, if you have a full-blown stress fracture – which is an actual crack in the lower leg bone – you need at least 12 weeks of complete rest. But if it’s purely a muscle irritation, it should recover well within four to six weeks of conservative physiotherapy treatment and strengthening.”
Suzy agrees that it’s necessary to seek professional help to identify not only the nature of the injury, but also the cause; that will help you avoid injury in the future, too. And to maintain fitness while you’re resting your injury, she recommends continuing low-impact cross-training activities: on a bike, on a cross-trainer machine or on the stairs.
“Keeping up your base fitness while injured makes it easier to return to running when you are able to,” she promises.
To avoid getting hurt or sick, Ben has four useful pointers:
Training. “Train following a plan that’s suitable for your current ability and that is progressive. Start at a lower volume and at a lower intensity, and gradually build these up across the weeks as your fitness and conditioning improve.”
Foam rolling. “Use a foam roller daily to keep your muscles and fascia loose and supple, increase blood flow, improve range of motion and speed recovery from training.”
Nutrition. “Eat a nutrient-dense diet rich in fruit and vegetables for essential vitamins and minerals that help to keep the immune system strong.”
Sleep. “Aim for a minimum of eight to nine hours a night.”
Apart from echoing Ben’s recommendation for a gradual build-up of volume and intensity, and minimising impact through incorporating cross-training, Suzy seriously recommends doing some core stability work and weight or strength training. “That’s because a stronger core will help improve your running form and efficiency, while stronger muscles are better able to handle the impact of running.”
Simon stresses the importance of building appropriate muscle strength of the calves, glutes (buttocks) and quadriceps (thighs). “This is easily tested for,” he says, “and if you’re found lacking in any area, you can ask to be shown effective ways of strengthening it.”
A good running gait will also help guard against injury, because it’s associated with better shock absorption through the calf muscles. Scheduling a recovery day every three or four days is a good idea, he says; instead of running, hit the pool or get onto a stationary bike. And taper before you race a 10K, a half-marathon, a marathon or longer; schedule a week or more of active rest.
Stay safe, stay injury-free, and see you on the road!
This story first appeared in Expat Living’s June 2015 issue.