How I’ve stayed injury free for 4 years

November 2011 was the last time I had a running injury (I knocked on wood immediately after typing this).

But I had struggled for two years with plantar fasciitis and illiotibial band syndrome, which plagued me for six months.

Dealing with those injuries, especially IT band syndrome, was tough. Every runner knows the heartache of injury, when your body won’t let you do what you love. When I had IT band syndrome, I sunk a nasty state where I didn’t want to do anything. Even walking and biking hurt, and so I let myself sit on the couch for a summer.

But I eventually got my head on straight, healed and got strong again.

Even if I’ve been healthy for a while, some 70 percent of my fellow runners will get injured every year, according to American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.

In 16 years of running and with various running injuries (also including stress fractures) and setbacks (foot surgery), this is what I’ve learned when it come to injuries.

  1. Don’t be afraid to rest when you need it (and listen to your body).

Many competitive runners are Type A people. That discipline and drive is great for success, but those traits can be harmful when runners stick to a training plan no matter what even when their body is screaming for rest.

Here’s the thing: you can only train as hard as you can recover.

When you listen to your body, you’ll learn the difference between fatigue from hard training and being completely beat to hell.

Occasionally, when my body just doesn’t have it on the day of a workout, I change up my schedule and move a workout, or modify it. Or perhaps I feel something bad going on in my hamstring, I’ll shorten a run or take a day off and work on strengthening.

Don’t get me wrong–this isn’t something you should do all the time. Switching workouts or unplanned rest days is a resort when your body has had too much. Used intelligently, this strategy is beneficial. It’s better to be undertrained and healthy than overtrained and injured.

  1. Find a coach/program/training situation that works for you

Some runners achieve their best potential while in a group and with a coach. Others do well training solo and by coaching themselves, or with a training program and no coach. While some runners thrive off high mileage, others achieve most with a higher-intensity and lower mileage program.

You’re going to have to figure out through knowing yourself and trial and error what is your best situation. Don’t worry about what you’re “supposed” to do and what other people do. Those people aren’t you.

Having trained in all kinds of situations, I know that training alone is actually good for me. There’s something special about flogging myself around quiet dirt roads that I love. I modify the Hanson’s marathon plan to suit me, run medium mileage (45-60 weekly for marathon training), and take one day off a week (Friday because I’m so damned tired from my work week).

I also don’t keep intense data. While I wear a GPS watch during most workouts and long runs, I actually run “naked” or sans-watch during most of my easy runs. I keep a daily training log to track my progress, but I’ve never used Strava and rarely post my workouts online. In training, I prefer art to science. Too much data stressed me out I learned when I overdid it on tracking my workouts.

However, I see a lot of people via social media who love group runs and post their runs and splits online.

You do you, man.

  1. Recovery is more than sitting on the couch

As I wrote above, recovery is essential to training. Stress your body and allow it to adapt. Repeat.

There’s a lot you can do to aid in the process of recovery.

Compression has become an important part of my post-training routine. After hard workouts and long runs, or even days where I’m sore, I wear compression sleeves (compression shorts or tights are on my Christmas list). Compression sleeves are incredibly useful because I can wear them under work clothes or jeans or to sleep in. Compression gear keeps blood flowing, allowing your body to get to work on healing itself. Plus, it feels like a nice hug.

Foam rolling is fantastic. It’s like a massage whenever you want for one initial cost. Spending a few minutes each evening on the roller relaxes your muscles and connective tissues. It hurts so good when your muscles are tight. Foam rolling has been essential for me in keeping a nagging hamstring problem from becoming a full-blown injury.

Yoga is my third foundation of recovery. Yoga is in some ways the opposite of running. It’s not competitive, I stay fairly comfortable, and I have no goal in yoga. I allow myself to be and to feel whatever is in my body and my head. Yoga relaxes me and makes me feel good, which is great for tough marathon training. If you don’t do yoga, I recommend looking up Tara Stiles on Youtube. Her videos are fantastic and focus on movement rather than specific poses.

  1. Eat whole foods

Michael Pollan says, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Whether you have a vegan or Paleo diet, eat wheat or go gluten-free, the staple of a healthy diet is fresh, unprocessed fruits and vegetables. When I was in high school, I ate a lot of processed foods (Hot Pockets for lunch. I’m surprised I survived.). At that time of my life, I also struggled with some serious injuries like stress fractures. Maybe it was related, maybe not, but when I cut out crap like that and added in a lot more vegetables, I’ve been on a healthy streak.

My diet includes fish and seafood, but not any other kinds of meat. Iron is a mineral I struggle with, so I do take an iron pill. Otherwise, I take no supplements.

Staples of my meals are: Bananas. Real peanut butter (not the kind with added oils and sugars). Sweet potatoes. Wild-caught salmon. Free-range eggs. Brussels sprouts. Broccoli. Kale. Onions. Garlic. Feta cheese. Lemons. Avocado. Rice. Quinoa. Organic whole milk. Apple cider and balsamic vinegar. Olive oil. Tea (lots of Earl Grey. Hot).

I cut out sugar from my diet in June because I was eating way too much ice cream and chocolate, and my energy levels stabilized and I feel much, much better.

  1. Pay attention to lifestyle factors

Those heels probably aren’t healthy. When I wore high heels to work each day, I quickly got a nasty case of plantar fasciitis. Lost the heels, lost the PF.

My job has me sit most of the day, which took a lot of getting use to when I started in the real world. Moving around with regular breaks helps me feel better and certainly does my muscles some good.

My job is also quite stressful (seriously, Forbes ranked being a newspaper reporter as the worst job in the country), and I’m generally a pretty anxious person. It took me a while to realize how much anxiety disrupted my running. Anxiety makes my chest tight, which makes running quite difficult for obvious reasons. Understanding and dealing with the anxiety and stress has slowed down disruptions in my marathon training.

Be mindful of how your daily life–work, family, lack of sleep, stress–affect your training. Sometimes all it takes is a switch in your mindset to make improvements in running.

  1. Have fun

This is really important. If you’re not having fun, then why are you running?

Not every run is a good time, and I don’t have that expectation. But overall, I need to enjoy myself. Having a positive attitude and feeling good goes a long way toward a healthy training segment.

Here’s how I have fun: I switch up my routes, get in some solid cross training on my road bike (and learned cycling is a blast), leave the watch at home, race a distance I’m not used to or race a new event completely (duathlons are great for runners), hit the trails instead of the roads or simply enjoy the day when I’m out for a run.

Most importantly, I think, is breaking up my year of running. Right now, I’m in marathon training. I’ll take two weeks off from running on Nov. 2. In late November through December, I’ll run whatever I feel like with no specific goal in mind before I start training more specifically for my TBD 2016 goals.

With the craziness of the holiday season and after a long year of miles and splits and racing, those six weeks of running just for the sake of running are rejuvenating and fun. I run whatever distance I feel like or however fast or slow I feel like. There are no rules, only fun.

How do you stay healthy?

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