In 2018 I made one simple change to my training and since then I’ve run further and faster than ever before and had fewer injuries; what was the secret?
When I ran Manchester Marathon in 2015 it would have been my first marathon if the course had not been measured 400m short… But still it did mean a guaranteed marathon PB if I could ever bear to put myself through it again!
I arrived at the start line somewhat under prepared and found myself walking much of the last 6 miles. It wasn’t that I hadn’t used a good training plan, it wasn’t that I had skipped runs because I couldn’t be bothered, it wasn’t that I had executed runs incorrectly or cut my long runs short. It was mostly because I’d had to drop or curtail many of the critical, long runs due to injury.
Sadly I was already no stranger to injury when I started marathon training; my running journey started with shin splints during couch to 5km, a hamstring injury in my first race, a calf injury that lead me to have to redo couch to 5km in order to get back to running comfortably.
During marathon training I had IT band issues and then a knee injury that had me sat in a physio’s office 2 weeks before the marathon start asking whether there was any way I would begin a marathon let alone complete one.
I had been strength training since a couple of years into my running career and whilst it had reduced the frequency of my injuries it had not eliminated them. Following my 2015 not-quite-a-marathon catastrophe I honestly doubted that my legs could actually complete a marathon and that I was better suited to shorter distances; three years followed where I raced shorter distances and multi-sport events, but the marathon felt like unfinished business, so I started to wonder what it would take to get me through marathon training uninjured.
I’d tried all the generic advice on how to avoid injury; strength training, the 10% rule, plenty of sleep, rollering, ice, heat, compression, but I was still picking injuries up… By that point I had six years of training diary.
Then in 2018 I went through my diary with a fine tooth comb, flagged up every notable injury and checked every metric I could in the weeks leading up to the injury. Finally a pattern appeared, every injury had occurred after my TSB had hit -12 more than twice in a week. From then on that became my key metric and so far I’ve only dropped one workout in the last 3 years due to injury or niggle. That’s not to say I haven’t had niggles, but they have been fewer and less severe.
Is the lesson from this that everyone should limit themselves to staying above -12 TSB? No, absolutely not, what it taught me is the importance of a detailed training diary that allows you to look back at how you felt, how much you were running, how each workout felt and if you managed to get injured or have a particularly great result.
I firmly believe that every athlete is different; whilst there may be patterns in how a group of athletes respond to a particular training stimulus or training plan, every individual will be a little different, some will barely improve and others will get great results. When it comes to training load, some athletes can go from minimal running straight into 60km training weeks without injury and for others doing a 30km training weeks will generate injury.
If you really want to get the most out of your training in the long term then make sure you keep a training diary and make sure to review it every so often to spot patterns; whether that’s injuries or PBs.
What do you put in a training diary? Obviously you put your runs in; with the advent of mobile phones with GPS and relatively low cost GPS watches then you can do this automatically to various pieces of software (TrainingPeaks, Garmin Connect, Strava, Polar Flow etc.) Ideally you also should record how the run felt; easier than normal, harder than normal, any particular physical niggles, any mental challenges, anything that worked particularly well. But its not just runs that have an impact on your training, so I would try and put any significant workout in; cycling, swimming, strength, yoga, even a 5km hike with the family.
But more than that, once you get to a certain volume of training then it becomes very helpful to take stock of how you feel each morning and record that in your diary. For example, how did you sleep? How much energy do you feel you have in the morning? Do you have any general soreness? Do you have any specific niggles or injuries?
Once you’ve got a training diary then there are various times you can use it; if you have a recurring injury or niggle then you can try and establish what factors trigger it, if you have a particularly good performance then you can see what you did in the weeks leading up to it and if you work with a coach or a physio then you can give them any information they need.