How to Recover from a Running Injury
by Jesse Kropelnicki, QT2 Systems
Ed. Note—we've all been there, right? Hurt from one of our favorite activities, and probably the thing that got us into endurance sports in the first place. You're hardly alone, though: something bonkers like 40% of runners are injured every year, so it comes with the territory. That doesn't mean you have stay in that territory, though. Get back up to speed (literally!) with this advice from QT2 Systems Head Coach Jesse Kropelnicki.
Of the three disciplines in triathlon, running is by far the most demanding on the body. The force of your body weight in addition to the dynamic movement can be stressful on your lower body. Because of this, runners are more prone to injury than cyclists and swimmers, who have little to no body weight impact. The best training programs should keep you from developing any kind of a running injury, but should one befall you, the following protocol will help you to maintain your fitness while you allow yourself some time to heal.
Triathletes provide their glutes, hamstrings, and quads with plenty of stress, on a daily basis, through bike training. Hip flexion, under load, is one of the only major running movements that we neglect while cycling. Also neglected, but less so, are the soleus and gastroc muscles of the calf. So, if you are unable to run, but would still like to maintain your run fitness, you must continue to keep these identified areas engaged, as you continue to build your “aerobic engine.” In conjunction with this is the fact that in Ironman racing, bike durability is one of the primary factors in defining how an athlete will run off of the bike. In essence, you want to be trained such that you enter T2 feeling as close to how you would feel at the starting line of an open marathon, as possible.
So, how do we specifically bridge the gap in training, created by an injury that does not allow the athlete any running volume?
1) Take half of your planned weekly run volume (i.e., pre-injury planned volume), in minutes, and add that to your planned weekly bike volume. This will greatly improve your bike durability and therefore help you to arrive at the marathon start fresher, thus running faster. It will also help to both keep your gluts, hamstrings, and quads under significant stress, and maintain aerobic efficiency.
2) Devote the other half of your planned running volume to focused hip-flexor work. This can come in the form of water running, using PowerCranks on the bike, or kick sets in the pool. Of these, try to have at least half be in the form of pool running, because it most closely simulates the running motion, with form and range of motion. Execute any pool running workouts exactly as you would on dry-land, but expect your HR to be about 10% lower than what you would see on land. Because the water is like a giant compression sock, the venous return that you get from the water pressure allows the same amount of blood to be moved, at a lower HR.
3) Spend three days a week doing three sets (of ~12 reps) of calf raises and hip-flexor specific exercises, to promote strengthening and maintain flexibility.
In the rare instances that we have had to use this protocol for one of our athletes, it has proven extremely successful. As an example, we had a first time Ironman athlete develop a stress-fracture just 12 weeks out from race day. She executed the above protocol, exactly as prescribed, not running a single step for those 12 weeks. On race day she ran herself into a Kona spot, with a 3:38 marathon. This protocol is so successful for athletes of all ability levels, because it identifies and targets the specific muscle groups that go ignored, when we typically nurse a running injury, and also takes advantage of the benefit of bike durability and its impact on a great triathlon run.
Any time that you have an injury it is very important that you not try to resume running too soon. Take, for example, a non-impact based injury like IT Band Syndrome. Once you are to the point where you no longer feel any pain, on a day-to-day basis, try easing back into things by running every other day. Try to avoid planning specific run lengths; instead simply run until the moment when any pain becomes greater than a two, out of ten. If your next run fails to go any longer than the previous run, wait two days until you try again. If after waiting two days, the run duration does not improve (using the same 2 out of 10 rule), then wait three days before your next run, and so on. Each time that you are able to run longer than the previous run, subtract a day, until you are back to running every other day. Once you are able to run for 45 minutes, every other day, you are likely able to resume running as you had, prior to the injury. Avoid running on back-to-back days until you are able to run for 45 minutes, every other day!
These little injuries can be very frustrating, but with a little patience, they do not have to hinder long-term progress, and can prove just another speed bump in a otherwise successful race season and racing career.