How to Avoid Overuse Injuries

Ian Tan aims to get you thinking holistically about running, putting it into the big picture.


Words Ian Tan
Photo David Ash | Ritual Gym 

We like quick, clean-cut answers, especially when it comes to health and performance. Unfortunately, the hard truth is that health and performance don’t always come hand in hand. When you push your body for maximal performance, you often end up perpetuating imbalances in other parts of your body. If you want to push yourself to, say, get better at running marathons, you’re going to have to spend more time running. In doing so, you expose yourself to a higher amount of stress, and chances are you also increase your likelihood of sustaining some sort of overuse injury, like shin splints, plantar fasciitis, or patellar tendinitis, amongst other things.

To a certain extent, this increased likelihood of injury is just a thing you have to accept. Most good runners have their version of this - their unique issue or niggle or twinge or ache that fires up when they pile on the miles. However, if you understand the issues and put some effort into taking care of yourself, you can set yourself up to be more resilient to the overuse.

Finding the Middle Ground

There is a middle ground where joints tend to function best. In this middle ground, you get smooth joint articulations, good stabilisation, and your muscles can generally fire up well and do what they are supposed to do.

If you hang out in good alignment, you’ll have a lower risk of injury. As I talked about in the last article, a lot of the imbalances that people carry - that pull them away from this middle ground - come from low-level, repetitive stuff that they do in everyday life. For example, wearing high heels too often or slouching over a computer or a cell phone all day long. This same concept of ‘repetitive stress’ applies to running too.

The human body doesn’t really decide its health status. It simply reacts to stimulus. It is adaptable and malleable, and it responds to the input it receives. If you eat too much, you put on weight. If you do a lot of pull-ups, your upper body gets stronger. If you run a lot, your body adapts too.

My point here is that while running is great, it isn’t the be-all, end-all of healthy movement. Sure, it’s absolutely appropriate to have a preferred activity, but you’d be doing yourself a huge disservice by thinking that all you need to do to be structurally healthy is run.

Adding to the Menu

So, then, what else do you need?

I get it, you want to be able to not just maintain, but actively work on your aerobic capacity. You also want to have the endurance capabilities in your muscles to keep going when you’re tired. You also want to work on your technique. Yes, as a competitive runner, you need to put in the mileage to work on these things. However, there are some quick tricks you can employ that will not only help you reduce wear and tear and imbalances, but save you time, too.

The first thing you want to think about is some sort of full body resistance training. Whether this comes in the form of calisthenics, lifting with free weights, kettlebell work, or any other form of full body strength training, the important part is that you emphasize full range of motion with perfect technique. Working your body in full ranges of motion, with a focus on quality full body movements over isolation exercises, you’ll build resilience in your joints and structure, and help your body balance out the imbalances created by the volume of running you do. In addition, functional type exercises will work well to point out your imbalances and movement faults, so you’ll know what you need to work on to keep integrity in the system.

Note that these forms of exercise are very different from bodybuilding type training. Instead of working to put on mass, you’ll be working to develop lean, dense, efficient muscle, without the bulk, that will help you develop resistance to injury.

To work on your aerobic base, you’ve got other options besides running. For example, you can swim, climb, bike, or simply run sprints instead. With sprint type training, you can get training effects in a much shorter amount of time, with a workload that is less taxing on your joints overall. The difficult part is that getting through sprint type sessions can be pretty hard, especially if you’re training on your own.

Be Efficient

If you’re looking for the ultimate in terms of efficiency, where you can work on full body functional movements, sprint type training, and your aerobic capacity, you can combine them all in some form of high intensity interval training, like what we do at Ritual. While this is arguably the most efficient way to train, I’d highly recommend having a trained professional work with you on your technique during your workout, as it is often hard for even the best athletes to maintain perfect form under intense conditions.

As a final thought, consider this: people often choose running as their activity because of its simplicity. All you need is a pair of shoes. However, it’s not uncommon for a person’s running time to improve once they start exploring different types of movement. Don’t be afraid to switch it up. Don’t be afraid to figure out how to make training fun. Run backwards, do some agility drills, learn to cut corners. Climb over walls and up trees. Play some basketball, wrestle a friend. Explore movement and play - you’ll be surprised how much you can learn about your body and your athleticism just through play.

Ian Tan is the co-founder of  Ritual Gym is at 11 North Canal Road, #03-01, Singapore 048824.

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