This is probably the stupidest thing I’ve ever written (and there’s a fair bit of competition for that prize). I recently realised I've been uninjured for four years, which is pretty rare in a sport where 100-mile training weeks are as popular as 100-mile races up and down mountains (or more recently for me, 261 miles through Pennine bogs).
The old adage about pride before a fall is ringing so loudly in my ears as I type, that it feels inevitable my legs will drop off as soon as I've finished writing this blog. But if it'll help someone else, it might be worth it.
I played football, a fast-paced contact sport, for some 20 years and think I only had two injuries - both trauma rather than overuse issues - on my ankles from bad tackles. Runners are much more concerned about injury than footballers and for good reason.
Running is incredibly repetitive, with constant loading of the joints and stress on tendons, muscles and bones, and often on unforgiving surfaces. In ultrarunning there's a recent history of athletes suffering from fatigue, overtraining syndrome, Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-s), burnout and long-term injury, particularly among elite runners. Some of those who were winning races five years ago aren't running much now.
So, let's define injury.
After a 100-mile race I won't even try to run for a week. I'm too beat up, both externally (usually muscle and tendons soreness) and internally (just really effing tired). I don't call that being injured. That's expected and to be treated with respect.
But I haven't had an injury that's interrupted my training since a tenacious Achilles issue last seen in early 2017. How? It's impossible to be sure and I doubt it's one thing. But it's likely to be a combination of the following factors...
1. Easy lovin'
Firstly, I generally follow the 80/20 rule and run mostly (or roughly 80 per cent) easy. I used to think everyone did this, but as a coach, I now know they don't.
Running easy helps increase capillaries, mitochondria and Type I muscle fibre-recruitment. Not only are you less tired on your next run, but you've stressed your body less, especially those vulnerable lower-leg tendons.
Running fast is a bunch of stress, internally and externally. It's worth doing sometimes, but in a calculated way rather than ad hoc running in the troublesome 'middle' zone.
Running easy helps build volume more safely, leading to those long-term aerobic gains and it's just more enjoyable. Plus, there's always the bonus that you'll probably be less sweaty.
There was a spell when I did a lot of 'run commutes' and as I was often running late, I'd be running in that middle zone - neither easy nor fast - and I could sense myself plateauing. Running easy again made me faster.
2. On good form
It feels like most of the running world has heard of massive "fascia-ist" Shane Benzie now. The Lost Art Of Running author has been lecturing me for years about harnessing the free energy of elastic running, which means using our fascia more and stressing muscles less.
Run a bunch of miles with bad form – overstriding especially – and injury seems pretty likely.
But it's not just about focusing on your form when you're in your running daps. Shane says:
Have bad posture during the day and you won't magically snap into beautiful posture when you run.
Shane's the main motivation behind my decision to buy a standing desk. Chairs are evil. They may be the reason most physios tell runners they have weak glutes.
3. Consistency is king
One of my coaching tenants – it's most coach's tenant to be fair – is consistency.
Consistency has been proven to be more relevant to performances than more recent training stimulus. But by consistency, I don't mean doing the same miles every day, week or month. It means having the courage to back off when something feels a bit off, so that you can get out again soon – rather than pushing through a niggle and making it worse.
It means bumping intervals back another day after a bad night's sleep or stressful work day, or cutting a long run short if you do feel unusual discomfort. Those who can back off are those who keep running and running. Athletes who stick doggedly to a plan no matter what are the ones who get niggles and lose that consistency.
4. Pre-emptive prehab
I have a runner friend who treats the physio like a dentist. He only goes, with great reluctance, two months after an issue (and even then tries to get an NHS referral so he doesn't have to pay).
Personally, I see physio Matt Holmes pre-emptively, usually every two-four weeks. I get an MOT and if nothing's obviously wonky, I'll receive an "ouchily" deep leg massage to reset tired and tight muscles and tendons.
I foam roll or use a muscle gun regularly too. It's easy for some muscle tightness to go undetected and turn into something.
But roll around on the floor grunting and groaning a bit and there's no knowing how many issues are dissipated before they even exist. Some post-run stretching on key muscle groups is worth doing, too.
5. Less is more
I have done 100-mile training weeks for extended periods, but the risks outweigh the potential rewards for most people who have full-time jobs and/or young families. If it doesn't injure you, it'll likely just knacker you out and you'll end up shuffling along unproductively.
Tiredness isn't validation of good training. I'm running better now on less volume (more commonly in the region of 65-75-miles a week), thanks to my magician of a coach, David Roche.
Racing less is equally if not even smarter. Some elite ultrarunners feel it was over-racing rather than over-training that did them in when it comes to injuries.
Ultimately, doing a little less usually means you can do more in the long run.
6. Strong bum tactics
Strength work is proven to benefit the, erm, more mature athlete (I'm 45) and help improve running economy. Anecdotally, it significantly improves leg fatigue and injury resistance, too.
I've been strength training for years, sometimes just one or two 30-minute sessions a week, but in the last 18 months I've been doing so with more specificity with the help of the team at Strength For Endurance. I feel all the better for it and I'm certain it helps my form too.
Sleep has become fashionable, but for good reason.
Christie Aschwanden's excellent book Good Too Go analyses all of the popular recovery tactics and gimmicks and concludes that by far the most effective one is good, old-fashioned shuteye.
When we snooze the human growth hormone, which repairs muscle and bones, is released. Testosterone is also released during sleep and the beneficial effects of testosterone include increased muscle mass and bone density.
Insufficient sleep is likely to lead to higher levels of the inflammatory marker C-reactive protein, the stress hormone cortisol, and your muscles’ ability to store glycogen.
Plus research has linked injury risk with insufficient pillow time. The old adage that 'you snooze, you lose', couldn't be more wrong.
8. Bish, bash, nosh
Always eat enough. In my opinion, low carb diets are idiotic. Fasted running is self-sabotage. You need calories and you need carbs.
I've been lucky to have leading sports dietician Renee McGregor advising me for years, especially as I've gone plant-based (for ethical rather than performance reasons).
Recovery after intense or longer efforts is important, meaning getting carbs and protein in quickly after those sessions is a valuable routine to get into (Renee recommends chocolate milk).
Without adequate nutrition, hormones can get out of whack and we don't make the adaptions we should, as well as other bad things such as weaker bone health and higher cortisol. I rarely drink booze, partly because it interrupts sleep and all the good stuff that happens there (and partly because I'll be a bit less stupid generally!).
9. Play the long game
Lastly, I run mostly on trails, the variety of which is kinder on your body and just more enjoyable.
I always try think holistically about my life; is a 25-mile run on the same day as giving a talk or the same week as moving house really smart? Always think long-term. We are, after all, playing the long game.
And after writing this fate-tempting piece about going uninjured for so long, my next blog for PH will no doubt be titled "coping with injury"...
Damian's book, In It For The Long Run (Vertebrate Publishing), is out in May.