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Obviously it’s not possible to guarantee a pain free (half) marathon. But there are ways to maximise your running efficiency and organise your training schedule to help you avoid unnecessary pain and injury.
Of course you will still have to put in the effort, but the results will be more rewarding. In my experience the two main things that contribute to injuries to runners are:
Suddenly increasing mileage
Bad running technique
So it’s best to have a realistic training schedule and try to develop a good running technique.
Start with the longest distance you can comfortably run at the moment. Then gradually increase your distance by no more than 10% each week. So your long run and overall weekly mileage should not increase by more than about 10% a week.
Also every 4 weeks have an easy week to allow the body to recover. Don’t increase your mileage that week and even reduce it slightly. Then the following week continue where you left off.
Try to peak in your long runs about three weeks before the race day and then taper down the runs, so that the week before your event your long run is around 10 miles for the marathon or 8 miles for the half marathon.
Be flexible and if you’re feeling tired have a day off. Years ago I was following an intense (half) marathon training schedule and kept to it exactly, even when feeling exhausted from a busy week at a new job with a long commute. The result was that eventually I got ill and was off work for a week. So listen to your body and act accordingly.
To avoid overtraining check your resting heart rate for a week first thing in the morning (ideally before you even get out of bed), find out what your average resting heart rate is over the course of a week.
Then when you’re feeling low on energy check your resting heart rate the next morning. If it’s gone up by more than 10, have a day or two off until you’re resting heart rate has returned to normal. This can help avoid getting colds and minor injuries.
On your long runs keep your pace easy. You should be able to chat to a friend in full sentences otherwise you are running too fast for your aerobic capacity. If you have a heart rate monitor you can use the low heart rate training method recommended by Phil Maffetone. See The Secrets of Low Heart Rate Training.
Many runners injure themselves because of bad technique. If a runner over strides and lands on the heel on a straight leg, that is very high impact and in most cases the runner will eventually get injured.
Injuries from over striding and heel striking include knee pain, hamstring pulls, shin splints and plantar fasciitis. Feet turning out to the side as you land can result in IT band problems, groin strains, ankle pain and knee problems.
At the other extreme, many runners read that they shouldn’t heel strike, so they switch to forefoot running. Running on the forefoot is not a problem if you have always run that way. But if you suddenly switch to forefoot running from heel striking it can cause injury as the body takes time to adapt.
You need to strengthen the calves and muscles of the foot, which takes time. There is also more work for the Achilles to do, so often there are calf and Achilles injuries, and some runners can have problems with plantar fasciitis.
So as heel striking and forefoot running can both cause problems for some runners, I recommend the mid-foot strike, or whole foot landing as it is sometimes called. This uses the natural arch of the foot to absorb impact, which is also spread over the whole foot rather than being concentrated on the heel or forefoot.
However, the most important thing is to avoid landing on a straight leg. This will always tend to lead to injury as it's so high impact. Instead land on a bent leg with the knee above the ankle. If the knee is bent it can absorb the impact of landing well. If the foot lands directly under the knee it can blend with the force of the oncoming road, which helps the efficiency of the runner's stride.
A whole body lean from the ankles engages gravity to help move the runner forward. This means you don’t have to push off so much with the calves. You can use the lean to increase your speed, let the force of the oncoming road work with you rather than against you by using the mid foot strike, and let the core muscles help your running action. This produces an efficient and low-impact running style, which uses less energy and helps reduce injuries.
Another factor to consider is your body's overall flexibility and strength. Most of us spend most of the day sitting. This isn’t good for the body, so we need to take short breaks to stretch and strengthen the body. Also we need to do some work to realign our body and develop our muscles to prepare our body for the demands of running.
Katy Bowman, a biomechanist, has written two books on these very subjects. They are Don’t Just Sit There!, about how to stretch and align your body while still at work, and Whole Body Barefoot which is all about strengthening your body and increasing its flexibility for running. Katy is a runner and hiker herself and a mother of two young children, so she has lots of practical experience to complement her scientific knowledge.
So if you follow all the guidelines above I feel you will be on the road to more enjoyable and efficient running. If you need any further advice on the correct running technique or running training plans, please leave me a comment below, or you can also book a one-to-one session of the Running Technique Coaching that I offer.
These are exercises that we've found very useful and want to share with our customers. But we're not certified instructors. Always consult your specialist before beginning any exercise programme. This general information is not intended to diagnose any medical condition or to replace your healthcare professional. Consult with your healthcare professional to design an appropriate exercise prescription. If you experience any pain or difficulty with these exercises, stop and consult your healthcare provider.
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Kate ToddJanuary 7, 2017 at 12:03pmI am 66 years young, I run 5/6 days a week. Is it possible to get my racetimes lowered. In my forties I ran 1.24 half marathon 3.06 marathon 39/40 min 10k . I now run 49.30 10k ,1.50 for half marathon. I would love to run a marathon this year only if I can get a reasonable time. I also competed in a few 100k races in my late forties.
I still love running and am very competitive. Due to other commitments my running has taken a back seat now I am retired I would like to train properly. I would be grateful for any advice you can give me.
Balavan ThomasJanuary 11, 2017 at 9:49am
I would recommend reading Chi Running & Chi Marathon by Danny Dreyer. He is in his sixties and still running marathons and a few off-road ultra races. It's a good idea to learn Chi Running to make you more energy efficient in your running. I teach Chi Running workshops every month in London and occasionally in Cardiff.