We’ve all been there before. Maybe you finally got over a two-week cold that kept you on the couch, or your friend convinced you to sign up for a marathon that’s only a month away. You’re feeling behind in your fitness and like you need to get moving. You lace up your shoes and jump into the deep end of your training program.
The literature is clear that if you increase your mileage by more than 10% per week, your risk of a running-related injury can increase 4-fold.(1) But if you’re used to being fit and capable of handling high mileage, it can be difficult to avoid higher-mileage weeks when you’re feeling behind in your training.
So, what then? Do you need to avoid substantial jumps in mileage no matter what the cost is to your overall fitness or training goals?
Ramp mileage, not injury risk
What we’re going to focus on here is how you can decrease your injury despite wanting to quickly ramp up your mileage. Will your risk of injury still be higher than if you were to slowly add in longer days? Yes. But can you mitigate some of the most likely culprits for pain? Absolutely.
Whether you’re a trail or road runner, there are some big demands on your system when you go out on your run. At its core, running requires single leg stability and control as you move through your gait cycle, and your muscles all need to work to attenuate the forces through your joints as you hit the ground. Your injury potential will sky rocket when your body’s control begins to break down and you begin to run through fatigue. What this means is that if you strengthen and stabilize the biggest loading force mitigators, you can substantially decrease your risk of injury even while you increase mileage because you will be more fatigue resistant.
What happens when your body is tired?
If you’re ramping up your training, you likely will get to a point where you are pushing your body past the point of gentle Zone 1-2 workouts. When this occurs, the biggest changes to your gait include an increase in peak loading through your forefoot and lower leg and an increase in loading errors through your legs as you land.(2) Your goal is to improve your body’s capacity for maintaining a safe motor pattern even when you’re fatigued.
Strength train your legs twice a week
This isn’t an old concept, but the muscles and motor patterns you focus on in the gym could use some tweaking.
First, you need to train your back extensors, abdomen, and hips together to improve your body’s reaction to hitting the ground during a run. This “core unit” should be trained in different planes of movement. The result is a substantial reduction in your risk in hamstring injuries, knee pain, and shin and ankle discomfort.(3) You also want to target your quadriceps and hamstrings endurance: the major muscle groups in your legs have a higher capacity, the onset of a ‘fatigued’ gait pattern is delayed and your body will be more resilient to increases in your mileage. A study (Mendez-Rebolledo et al, 2020) assessed the following exercises as best to improve your leg and core unit resiliency:(4)
- Hip thrusts
- 3 x 12 reps (choose a weight between 30-60lbs, where you feel you couldn’t do more than 15 repetitions well)
- How To Build Great Glutes with Perfect Hip Thrust Technique (Fix Mistakes!) (at minute 2)
- Side bridges
- 2 x 10 reps each side
- How to do the Side Bridge
- 3 x 15 reps
- How to Do Crunches
- Seated marching on physio ball
- 2 x 20 reps
- Seated Marching on Physio Ball
- Nordic hamstring curl
- 3 x 6 reps (start small)
- Nordic Curl Solo
- Pike tucks
- 3 x 8 reps
- Swiss Ball Pike Tuck
Avoid floppy ankles
As your body is pushed, your legs tend to get stiffer to save on muscular demand, but your ankles tend to get floppier. More pronation and an outside roll-off during your gait is common, and this is highly correlated with lower leg pain that can become medial tibial stress syndrome or an Achilles issue. If you target your ankle and foot preventatively, you’ll find you can handle higher mileage with fewer side effects.(5)
- Short foot “doming”
- 3 x/week, 5’’ isometrics repeated 5 x/side
- Barefoot Running Exercise: Foot Doming
- Single leg calf presses/raises
- 3 x 20 reps, 3 x/week. Consider working up to a 15-20lbs weight (hold on the same side you’re working) after 1-2 weeks unloaded.
- Single Leg Calf Raise
- Toe grasping walking 3 x/week
- 10 steps, spread the toes and hold for 3 seconds each step. Repeat 3 x/week
- This is the motion, but try it standing and walking: Foot & Ankle Exercise: Towel Toe Curls
- Wobble board exercises
- Up to 20 minutes, 3x/week
- You can use other types of wobble boards, but the key is to wobble! MOBO FootFocus
This is one of the best ways to decrease your risk of injury, and one that is often overlooked. And no, running doesn’t count as a plyometric exercise! Plyometrics need to include fast velocity movements in multiple planes of motion. Use this program as a dynamic warm-up before your bigger workouts at least twice a week. Combined with the above list of exercises, this will decrease the ground reaction forces through your body by up to 25% in as little as six weeks. In fact, the following exercises showed an almost 9% decrease in injury risk compared to a control group who didn’t do plyometrics prior to their runs.(6)
- Line jumps: forward and lateral
- Scissor Jumps
- Single-legged skater squats
- 3 x 8 reps per side https://www.youtube.com/shorts/Di2ZA5mqee4
- Romanian Deadlifts
- 3 x 6 reps Plyometric RDL
- Tuck Jumps
- 3 x 10 reps for height WORKOUT TECHNIQUE | Tuck Jump
By adding in some targeted strengthening and plyometrics to your weekly routine, your body should be able to tolerate more curve balls—and that includes substantial jumps in your mileage.
- Nielsen RØ, Parner ET, Nohr EA, Sørensen H, Lind M, Rasmussen S. Excessive progression in weekly running distance and risk of running-related injuries: an association which varies according to type of injury. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2014 Oct;44(10):739-47. doi: 10.2519/jospt.2014.5164. Epub 2014 Aug 25. PMID: 25155475.
- Hamzavi B., Esmaeili H. Effects of running-induced fatigue on plantar pressure distribution in runners with different strike types. Gait Posture. 2021;88:132–137. doi: 10.1016/j.gaitpost.2021.05.018.
- Schuermans J., Danneels L., Van Tiggelen D., Palmans T., Witvrouw E. Proximal neuromuscular control protects against hamstring injuries in male soccer players: A prospective study with electromyography time-series analysis during maximal sprinting. Am J Sports Med. 2017;45:1315–1325. doi: 10.1177/0363546516687750.
- Mendez-Rebolledo G, Figueroa-Ureta R, Moya-Mura F, Guzmán-Muñoz E, Ramirez-Campillo R, Lloyd RS. The protective effect of neuromuscular training on the medial tibial stress syndrome in youth female track-and-field athletes: A clinical trial and cohort study. J Sport Rehabil In press. doi:10.1123/jsr.2020-0376.
- Taddei U.T., Matias A.B., Ribeiro F.I.A., Bus S.A., Sacco I.C.N. Effects of a foot strengthening program on foot muscle morphology and running mechanics: A proof-of-concept, single-blind randomized controlled trial. Phys Ther Sport. 2020;42:107–115. doi: 10.1016/j.ptsp.2020.01.007.
- Sugimoto D., Myer G.D., Foss K.D.B., Hewett T.E. Specific exercise effects of preventive neuromuscular training intervention on anterior cruciate ligament injury risk reduction in young females: meta-analysis and subgroup analysis. Br J Sports Med. 2015;49:282–289. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2014-093461.