Avoiding injury and maintaining consistency when training for an ‘ultra’
I met Paul Newsome in the mid 90s when both of us enrolled on the first ever Sport and Exercise Science degree course run by the University of Bath.
We were a real pair of keen young whippersnappers back then, very eager to improve our triathlon performances but committed our fair share of crimes against fashion...
Andy and Paul at the BUSA Championships in nineteen ninety something.
We trained exceptionally hard together during the first couple of years at uni and were both rewarded with Great Britain vests and Full Blue Awards for our efforts.
As time wore on, we also both suffered a bit from burnout and injury, having learned a few lessons about overtraining the hard way.
After getting our degrees, Paul and I largely went our separate ways for a number of years. He moved to Perth, Australia and founded a little swim coaching group that has since blossomed into SwimSmooth - arguably the most innovative and well known swim coaching company in the world today.
With the move Down Under, Paul stepped away from competing in triathlons, in part due to various running related injuries he’d been struggling with. Instead he got heavily involved in the world of open water swimming. He’s since swum the English Channel and won the 46km Round Manhattan Island event in New York, to name just two of his impressive accomplishments in that sphere.
Paul and I lost contact for a number of years after he first relocated. Then about 6 years ago, we then started seeing each other across the floor at triathlon expos and events in the UK. He was promoting SwimSmooth’s coaching platforms and I was launching Precision Hydration.
I’d continued with triathlon for a few years after uni but eventually gave that up in around 2006, messing around with adventure racing, kayaking and other outdoor sports to keep fit in the meantime.
Soon after meeting at the shows, we both independently started dabbling in some swimrun racing and, by chance, met up at the ÖTILLÖ Swimrun Weekend Isles of Scilly event in 2016.
Paul and I started chatting idly a while ago about doing a swimrun together at some point, ‘for old times sake’. Then, late in 2017, Paul messaged me to ask if I’d be up for having a crack at the formidable ÖTILLÖ Swimrun World Championship in Sweden this September.
We both turn 40 very close to the event, so it seemed like a good way to mark the occasion and, after a very short amount of deliberation, I said I was ‘in’. That's despite the fact that when I did the event back in 2014 I swore blind I’d never do it again!
And so, a training plan needed to be put in place.
From the get go we chatted a lot bit about how we’d individually approach preparation for the race given our individual situations. The ÖTILLÖ Swimrun World Championship is a genuinely daunting undertaking, with a total of 65km of running (in a wetsuit) and 10km open water swimming (in shoes) through the Stockholm Archipelago.
Both of us have suffered some pretty major running injuries over the years; Paul has had a persistent ankle problem and I’ve undergone serious knee surgery and suffered countless calf tears. So, how to get to the start line in a healthy state was a big topic. Not least because turning up in good shape not only affects your own race but that of your racing partner too.
We both agreed that getting to Stockholm having trained consistently rather than pursuing any unrealistic, lofty goals was the sensible thing do to. And it would ultimately be more compatible with the lives of a couple of guys with businesses to run and young families to bring up.
It’s a dangerous thing to say, but as I sit and type this with just 2 weeks to go to the race (and with the taper just getting started), I think it’s fair to say we’ve both managed a very solid block of consistent training.
We thought we’d share some insights into how we’ve managed that because we know that injury management is often a real issue for athletes doing a long distance running event of any sort, be it ultra-running, long distance triathlon or swimrun.
Paul started training for the event in early Jan 2018 and had this to say about how he’s approached his running in particular...
"For me the keyword has been 'management' as opposed to 'avoidance' of injuries and niggles. I originally left the sport of triathlon back in 2001 owing to some ankle issues, so running - whilst I love it, and used to be reasonably OK - has always been my nemesis.
I have had to be careful to build up gradually and have typically abided by the following 3 rules:
1) Very rarely have I run two days in a row.
2) I've substituted the running mileage that I've missed through this conservative approach by riding 2-3 times per week on my indoor smart trainer, using races and structured workouts on Zwift of between 60 and 90 minutes (after I've put the kids to bed!).
3) I actually found the load from a 30-40 km swimrun session - with the longest continuous run of 21.1km - to be significantly lower than a straight run of the same duration, so as such, I've been very specific with my really long sessions, making sure to mix them up with run and swim on many occasions.
As a result, I've now been training very consistently for about 8 months and have been fortunate to miss very few sessions.
Having a physio on hand at home (my wife, Michelle) has certainly helped a great deal, as I've had to overcome a left knee meniscus problem, two Morton's Neuromas in either foot, ongoing back issues following spinal surgery in 2013 and an occasional problematic left shoulder.
I've been anything but ‘injury-free' this year, but what training for something of this magnitude has taught me is how to conservatively manage these issues, which has included - for the first time ever - not necessarily stopping with the aggravating activity. Instead I’ve tried to embrace adjustment, management and patience with it.
I have to admit I’ve gone through several major waves of self-doubt through all of this! But, being just 2 weeks away from race day now, I feel I've started to come good and am looking forward to tackling the event with Andy.”
For my part, I’ve also tried to follow some similar self-imposed ‘rules’ and have taken certain specific precautions designed to promote consistency:
1) Aiming not to run more than 2 days in a row
Only when I’ve been travelling and not had access to a pool have I broken this rule, simply in order to keep my training volume up.
2) Reducing the intensity of my easy and steady runs
I reduced my pace by 15-20 seconds per km from what was my previous ‘standard’ training pace to de-risk mileage that was not part of key sessions.
This has probably been the most difficult rule to stick to mentally because it has involved consciously holding back during many runs, but it also seems to have been very impactful in a positive way, allowing me to push harder on the important runs without having to go out on very sore or tight legs.
3) Immediately cutting any session short at the early onset of any worrisome calf soreness or tightness
Frequent soleus calf muscle tears have been the bain of my running life over the last 20 years!
The reality is this has meant shortening at least a third of my speed-work sessions, usually cutting 1 or 2 reps from the end of an interval workout in these cases.
As with taking the edge off my pace during steady runs, this has been mentally quite hard - it can feel like a ‘failure’ if you don’t complete a prescribed workout. But I think this has also been very important in not allowing soreness and tightness to develop into proper muscle tears and strains.
4) Having regular sports massages
I’ve seen GB age group triathlon sports masseur extraordinaire Kev James around 3 times per month for the last 6 months. This has been incredibly useful in the early identification and treatment of any strains or niggles that might have otherwise developed.
In addition to the above, and as has been the case with Paul, I’ve tried very hard to roll with a general attitude of aiming for consistency above all else and feel like this has stopped me taking risks with any harder or longer sessions at times when I’ve been excessively tired or otherwise run down.
With hindsight, I would have loved to have spent some time following the wisdom of Dr Lawrence Van Lingen from Innerunner, working through his prehab/rehab exercises for lower limb injury prevention and refining my running form.
With more attention to that I think I might have been able to squeeze some additional quality from my faster running work in particular.
But, having said that, if you’d have offered me the chance to be get 14 days out from race day with 20+ weeks of consistent running behind me and no major chronic injury worries rearing their head, I’d have bitten your hand off so there are no real complaints from me at this point!
I’ll follow up with a race report and an ÖTILLÖ swimrun training blog after the event.
But, if you’ll excuse me for now I need to go for one more (steady) run around my neighbourhood in a strange rubber suit with a pull buoy strapped to my leg...