Can We Do Better Than The 10% Rule?

Can We Do Better Than The 10% Rule?

The short answer is yes.

The 10% rule would be familiar to most endurance athletes (limiting increases in training load by no more than 10% per week) and while it’s a good general guide to help us build our mileage, it has some serious flaws.

The 10% rule:

  • doesn’t allow for recovery adaptation weeks

  • isn’t actually supported by evidence

  • doesn’t give much helpful guidance when returning from a period of inactivity from injury or illness

  • may not be an appropriate target at certain times in your training phase

That’s where a broader view can help us plan our training, avoiding large spikes in load that are known to increased the risk of injury.

The acute-to-chronic training ratio compares your mileage for the last week to your average weekly mileage for the last four weeks.

In recent studies with athletes from various sports, injury risk climbs when this ratio exceeds 1.3, and increases significantly when it exceeds 1.5 (see graph below with thanks to Tim Gabbett).

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Keeping a regular eye on this ratio (easy if you have the Garmin connect app - see below) can help us find the sweet spot where the right amount of training is improving our performance and importantly staying injury free.

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To quote Tim Gabbett, “It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the load you’re not prepared for”.

If you’re a numbers sort of person, read more about effective load management strategies at our ‘Creating An Unbreakable Athlete’ series.

Creating An Unbreakable Athlete - Part 3 - Recovery

Creating An Unbreakable Athlete


This is part three of a three part series about building an ‘unbreakable athlete’.

The first two parts can be found here:

As always, this blog contains very general information and should be used in conjunction with a coach or health care professional.

This is not a comprehensive summary of all recovery methods, rather a more eclectic collection of strategies I’ve found very useful over the years.


How To Recover Like A Pro

In Part 2 we focused on building capacity through effective training habits.

While it’s important to get your training right, comparatively little importance is placed on how to best recover from those training sessions.

How well you recover quite often will make the difference between absorbing a training load the versus the beginnings of an over-use injury.

The longer I work with runners and athletes as a Physio, the more I can see how inadequate recovery techniques can lead to niggles and eventually injury.

When an injury does arise, we can sometimes become so fixated on the specific structure where we feel the pain (e.g. ITB, knee or achilles), but fail to zoom out and see the bigger picture of over-training / under-recovery that can be the root cause.

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Haile Gebrselassie on recovery,

“That’s why I keep winning. One of my advantages now is longtime experience. I know what I have to do to win the race, before the race, after the race, with recovery. That’s one of the advantages for old runners. That’s why I keep running well. The young runners have enough power just to do whatever they want. But if you think with strategy, you have a kind of advantage.”


Our bodies are designed to adapt to exercise by re-building after small and regular increases in stress / workload, that cause a minor break-down of tissue.

Keeping the balance between workout stress and rest / recovery ensures you will progress to be able to handle a higher level of performance and your physical capacity gets bigger (including muscle tissue, cardio-respiratory efficiency, tendon strength e.t.c).

Rest vs Active Recovery

There is a big difference between rest and active recovery, with rest being passive (doing nothing), whereas active recovery is a more targeted and mindful approach to re-building your tissues and creating the ideal environment for adaptations to take place.

Active recovery is where you have the opportunity to ‘press save’ on all the training you’ve done and help you progress to the next level.

As a young athlete, your recovery powers are at their peak, so you normally can back up pretty well with your training, without thinking about it.

But as you get older and your athletic goals possibly become greater (e.g. run a marathon), your recovery strategies become more important, requiring a deeper foundation to handle the loads of training (see picture below).

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What inadequate recovery looks like

Inadequate recovery (see graph below), means you may not be properly recovered for your next session, increasing the risk for an injury.

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Occasionally being under-prepared and over-trained is not an issue.

But if this pattern continues on for weeks / months then an injury will be almost guaranteed.

“The most important day in any running program is rest. Rest days give your muscles time to recover so you can run again. Your muscles build in strength as you rest” - Hal Higdon

Recovery is 24/7

You might train for an one hour per day, but there are 23 hours in the rest of the day that will make or break your next training session.

From what you eat, to how much sleep your getting to your general stress levels, your lifestyle plays a huge role in how well you can recover and adapt from your training loads.

Creating the right conditions for recovery

To be beneficial, recovery strategies need to accelerate recovery, as well as promote adaptations from training.

The three main areas of recovery we’ll focus on in the blog post will be:

  • Sleep

  • Nutrition

  • Tissue quality

Sleep:

There is a linear relationship between how much sleep you’re getting and your relative injury risk.

Neuroscientist Matthew Walker states, “sleep is the greatest legal performing enhancing drug that athletes aren’t using enough”.

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Training causes micro-trauma to the body, which stimulates positive adaptations to occur.

During sleep, your body release human growth hormone (HGH), a key protein that travels in the bloodstream to stimulate growth.

If you don’t get adequate sleep, you’re not getting your full allotment of HGH and your body will struggle to repair and adapt.

Cortisol tends to build up that can keep your body in a fight / flight state where healing and recovery is delayed.

Not sleeping enough has been reported to negatively effect performance, with higher rates of perceived exertion at the same level of effort.

What happens when you don’t get enough sleep ( < 6 hours per night):

  • time to physical exhausation drops by 30%

  • peak forces decrease

  • oxygen transport decreases

  • increases injury risk (80% chance of injury if sleeping < 5 hours per night)

Don’t stress if you’re not getting enough sleep

Don’t stress though about not getting enough sleep the night before a race, as the effect of poor sleep is normally worse two days after a bad night’s sleep.

While we all know getting more sleep would be ideal, in reality this can be much more challenging with work, family and social commitments putting pressure on our ability to get the ideal amount of sleep.

There’s no easy answer here and sometimes we can get so behind on sleep, that we’ve forgotten what is actually feels like to get a good nights rest.

Getting creative with your training schedule can help.

Here’s a few tips that may be of use:

  • rather than waking up extra early, do a training session as you commute to work or use your lunch break to train

  • break your training day into 2 smaller segments rather than one (very early) morning session

  • get to bed earlier - if you can get to bed by 10pm you will stimulate much greater training adaptations

  • avoid binge watching TV shows before bed

  • invest in a high quality mattress and pillow so you really look forward to getting into bed, and your sleep will be much better quality

If you have sleep issues that are more longer lasting, you may need to temporarily lower your expectations for your body, until you get things sorted.

Nutrition:

If you’re serious about your training, I’d suggest you consult a sports nutritionist to get some individual guidance on developing a plan that will help get the most out of your body.

Certainly one of the best investments I’ve made.


One of the most common mistakes you can make as an athlete is to not optimise your nutrition during an intense training cycle.

When your body doesn’t get enough nutritents to meet all of its tissue maintenance and energy needs, it will enter a catabolic state—which means your muscles begin breaking themselves down.

When you’re not eating enough, the first indication is likely to be a a niggle or injury and a significant decline in your workout performance.

The technical name for this is Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S) (see figure below)

Potential Performance Effects of Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport. Credit: I OC Consensus Statement 2018

Potential Performance Effects of Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport. Credit: IOC Consensus Statement 2018


Once again, as everyone has different needs, I highly recommend you consult with a Accredited Sports Dietician for a personalised plan.

But here’s a few key points about nutrition to get you started:

Hydration

Re-hydrating after workouts is critical to allow the body to start healing itself.

Water is good, but if you can also think about replacing electrolytes with something like nuun (we have in the clinic - ask us for a free sample).

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Carbohydrates

Numerous studies conducted over the past 40 to 50 years have consistently pointed to carbohydrate as the primary macronutrient for sustaining and improving physical performance.

Research suggests endurance athletes are able to perform better and train harder when they eat plenty of carbs.

Endurance athletes need a higher intake of carbohydrates (approximately 6 to 10 g/kg body weight daily), than the average person, not just to fuel their workouts, but to re-build glycogen stores which overall increases their physical capacity.

This equates to 1 - 1.5 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of bodyweight as a recovery fuel, ideally within the first 30 minutes of completing a training session. The actual number depends on length and intensity of the workout.

Surprisingly, many athletes don’t eat enough carbohydrates to support their training optimally, thinking they will gain too much weight.

But if you’re not getting enough fuel in training, your body will be more likely to break down and injury will follow.

The importance of carbohydrates comes down to the fact we can’t store carbs effectively (the liver and muscles store glycogen), but that is not enough to fuel a marathon, or any event more than about 90 minutes.

Lack of carbs stresses and fatigues the muscles

Not getting enough carbs has been shown to affect the muscles and tendons - in particular the ITB, hamstrings and achilles tendons.

When you are depleted of carbohydrates, there is a proportional increase in muscle fatigue, and also an increase in muscle protein breakdown.

If you’ve suffered from injuries in the past - be sure to adequately fuel yourself before, during and after your workouts to prevent your body from breaking itself down.

A low-carb diet may well be popular and useful for an inactive office worker, but a competitive endurance athlete may well need 2-3 times carbohydrate as the average person.

If you can focus on healthy, nutrient dense carbohydrates, and generally avoid processed carbohydrates you will enjoy getting fitter faster, with minimal time off due to injury.

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Protein

Re-building soft tissues after a hard workout requires additional protein, compared with a sedentary person.

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Protein plays a critical role in repairing this damage and is comprised of building-blocks known as amino acids.

There are 22 amino acids and our bodies require a balance of all of them, yet there are nine that we cannot produce ourselves (essential amino acids) which must acquire from food.

Complete proteins are sources which contain all 22 amino acids. Some readily available sources of complete proteins that will be helpful in building your way out of fatigue are animal products such as fish, eggs, red meat and chicken. Plant based athletes may need to supplement their diet to ensure optimal protein synthesis.

The timing of the protein is also critical, with research showing that evenly spreading your protein over 3 or 4 meals during the day creates the best environment for recovery and re-building.

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It can be difficult to optimally consume good protein sources (especially if you’re on the go), here’s a few examples you could take to work:

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Vegetarian / Plant Based Athletes

A vegetarian or plant based approach can raise several potential risks to both your health and your performance, but it can be done. Here are some excellent tips for you to help you stay healthy.

Fueling your body before training / racing

A good general rule is to avoid eating a main meal within the 2-4 hours before exercise (although everyone is different).

High fibre, fat and protein meals consumed pre-exercise have been shown to cause an increase in GIT symptoms as fibre, fat and protein are slow to empty from the stomach.

During your training try out different fueling options to find out what works best for you.

Try not to drink too much right before you train as you don’t want to have to run to the toilet just as you’re getting into a session.

Chocolate Milk

A study led by Joel Stager showed that drinking chocolate milk after running or any intense exercise speeds up recovery process and delays exhaustion time during training better than any sports drink.  

Maintaining tissue quality:

The major benefit of soft tissue work is that it relaxes tense muscles and removes adhesions or minor scar tissue between muscles and fascia, a fancy word for the sheath or casing that surrounds your muscles.

Training causes increased tension in the tissues and adhesions can restrict movement and impair your range of motion, potentially leading to abnormal movement patterns that can cause overuse injuries.

Types of soft tissue work:

  • foam rolling

How often do you need soft-tissue work done?

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As you build your physical capacity and get your training intensity ratios right, you will probably find your tissues are less likely to get over-loaded and tight.

Nervous system:

Too much high intensity or threshold training can have a detrimental effect on your nervous system.

Exposing yourself daily to high physical loads and stress keeps your body in the sympathetic state - high adrenaline and cortisol that keep the body in a state of tension.

Incorporate breath work, yoga, pilates and other calming practices to keep your stress levels at bay and promote effective recovery.

Ice baths

Coaches and athletes have been using ice baths successfully for years.

Use ice baths when you’re really going through a tough phase in training with lots of hot spots and you need to recover quickly for another session.

If you experience more general muscle soreness, I would advise warm baths as your typical way to un-wind at the end of a hard day’s training. They improve blood flow, stimulate the body’s healing response (para-sympathetic response) and a great before bed to encourage a good night’s sleep.


Key Messages:

  • Active Recovery helps protect against injury as it stimulates the body to repair and recover by optimising the right environment

  • Make active recovery a priority to balance the stress of training

  • Consider sleep, good nutrition and maintaining tissue quality the foundation for your success

Get To Know Your Muscles: Latissimus Dorsi

What are the lats?

If you’ve ever experienced ongoing upper back or neck pain / stiffness there’s a fairly chance you’ve had some issues with your lats.

The lats are the biggest (and most interesting) muscle in the upper body, as they have attachments to the upper and lower back, the front of the shoulder and have nerve supply from the neck, so they have a huge influence on your overall posture and spinal movement.

The anatomy of the Lats - they are like the ‘wings’ of our body

The anatomy of the Lats - they are like the ‘wings’ of our body

What are the symptoms of tight lats?

Surprisingly, tight lats can contribute to poor posture, as they connect your upper back to the front of your shoulder, causing you to adopt a rounded shoulders position.

Often we think of needing to strengthen the lats for good posture, but they can actually pull the shoulders too far down and rotate them forward when imbalanced.

When overly tight, the lats produce pain in the mid-upper back between the shoulder blades.

The pain can be felt as an constant, annoying ongoing upper back ache, that in generally unresponsive to stretching or change of position.

The pain doesn’t normally kick in until the there is significant tightness in the lat muscle, that generally has built up over many months or years, due to repetitive movement patterns or poor posture.

The person with ongoing upper back or neck pain often has tried various unsuccessful treatment methods applied directly to the area of referred pain rather than to its source (in the muscle itself).

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Referred pain may also extend down the back of the shoulder and down the inside of the arm (see picture above).

How the lats get tight:

  • poor posture (sitting or driving a lot)

  • going too hard at the gym e.g. lat pull down machine, chin ups

  • over many years of swimming , pulling through the water in freestyle

  • rock-climbing

  • gardening - pressing down to twist out weeds

  • cycling - gripping on too tightly on the handlebars

  • driving a car with no power steering

  • wearing tight bras that compress over the muscle

  • repetitively pulling down with the hands from overhead position

Tight lats - quick assessment:

An assessment from an experienced Physiotherapist would be the most reliable to determine if you have over-active lat muscles.

A quick test you can do yourself is a squat with your arms overhead. Try and squat as deep as you can, keeping your heels on the ground. If you can keep your arms upright your lats are probably ok (pic a), but if they drop forward or your feel stiffness in your back (pic b), you most likely have a lat issue.

Pic a = Good squat - arms stay upright and parallel with shins

Pic a = Good squat - arms stay upright and parallel with shins

Pic b  = Tight lats and upper back  - unable to keep arms upright in line with shins

Pic b = Tight lats and upper back - unable to keep arms upright in line with shins


How Physiotherapy Can Help:

  • perform a movement screening to identify the contributing factors

  • perform dry needling to the lat muscles to provide a fast, effective release

  • provided a personalised exercise program to maintain mobility and balance in the muscles


Stretches to help keep your lats mobile:

Lats stretch   Sit your hips back towards your ankles with your arms on the roller. Breathe in through the nose and expand the lower ribs. As you breathe out, gently sit the hips back further and lengthen the arms away. You should feel a nice stretch though the back of the shoulders and lower back.

Lats stretch

Sit your hips back towards your ankles with your arms on the roller. Breathe in through the nose and expand the lower ribs. As you breathe out, gently sit the hips back further and lengthen the arms away. You should feel a nice stretch though the back of the shoulders and lower back.

Try 30 seconds straight ahead and then 30 seconds on each side. To stretch the left side. push the hips back to the left with the arms on the right side of the foam roller.

Try 30 seconds straight ahead and then 30 seconds on each side. To stretch the left side. push the hips back to the left with the arms on the right side of the foam roller.

Lats Trigger Point Release   Lie on your side and roll up and down along the outer part of your shoulder blade. If you feel a sensitive spot, breathe and hold the pressure for around 30-60 seconds until the trigger point releases.

Lats Trigger Point Release

Lie on your side and roll up and down along the outer part of your shoulder blade. If you feel a sensitive spot, breathe and hold the pressure for around 30-60 seconds until the trigger point releases.

Tips to keep your lats working well:

  • gradually increase your weights at the gym, don’t try and do too much too soon

  • if you are a swimmer, incorporate regular stretching to maintain the flexibility

  • if you are an office worker, try a standing stretch by reaching up to the ceiling and bending to the side (the Merv Hughes Stretch)

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If you still experience pain in your lats, shoulder, neck, arms or thoracic spine then come in for an assessment and treatment with your Kinfolk Adelaide Physiotherapist.

The Perfect Post-Workout Drink

To be beneficial, your recovery beverage of choice needs to accelerate recovery, as well as promote adaptations from training.

There are many options out there from water, gatorade, coconut water, endura, nuun, coke, coffee, cherry juice, beer - the list goes on!

All of the above have their time and place, but one recovery drink stands out in improving performance for endurance athletes such as runners and cyclists…that is chocolate milk.

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Chocolate milk is perfect re-fueling drink as it:

  • re-hydrates the body

  • has carbohydrates to replace glycogen stores (double the carbs of plain milk)

  • has protein to help kick start the re-building process

  • contains essential vitamins and electrolytes, such as potassium, calcium, and magnesium

  • tastes good, is readily available and very easy to consume

Researchers claim that chocolate milk has a carbohydrate to protein ratio (3:1 to 4:1) that is ideal for boosting recovery time after an intense workout session.

If you haven’t already done so, experiment with a chocolate milk after your workouts and see how well you recover for your next training session.



Creating An Unbreakable Athlete - Part 2 - Load Management

Creating An Unbreakable Athlete Part 2 (Monitoring and Adapting).

This is part two of a three part series about building an ‘unbreakable athlete’.

The three parts consist of:

  • Identifying the Peak Demands of Your Sport and Building Capacity

  • Monitoring and Adapting your Training

  • Recovery

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As mentioned in Part 1, there is no one ‘right’ way to train for everyone.

This blog is an attempt to set out some basic principles you can use as a guide and then you can mold it with your own unique flavour.

The important thing is to listen to your body and if something’s working well that stick with it.

But if you’re having ongoing niggles or have plataued in your training, you may need to re-assess your training approach.

As always, this blog contains very general information and should be used in conjunction with a coach or health care professional.

Also, as most sports have running as their base, we are once again focusing on how to build your capacity for running, as it is the foundation for everything else.

A small warning, half way through this blog we go down some deep rabbit holes in terms of monitoring the numbers.

If you happen to be a numbers person you will appreciate it, but if not, just skip that section and think about the overall principles instead.


Building Capacity - How Hard Is It, Really?

Getting fitter and stronger involves a very simple equation:

Stress + Rest = Adaptation

On the face of it, as you build up your training, progress should be fairly linear, right?

For example, let’s say your training for your first marathon.

You start off with 5km runs which are very manageable, build up to 10km which your body enjoys and then 15km is a bit of stretch. When you get into the 20km+ long runs - all of a sudden something goes wrong…a niggle.

All of a sudden your perfectly laid out training plan is looking a little shaky.

You need time off, but that means while you rest your injury, your fitness is going backwards.

Instead of picture graph A below, your training turns into graph B (thanks to Adam Meakins for the graph).

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The goal of this blog is to help make your climb as smooth as possible - no doubt there will still be ups and downs. This makes life interesting and reaching your goals even more satisfying.

But if we can avoid the dramatic boom-bust cycle in your training, I think you would enjoy the process much more.

As Matt Fitzgerald writes in his book RUN: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel, developing confidence in your body through sensible and effective training, leads to an upward spiral of enjoyment, satisfaction and ultimately improved performance.

Monitor Training Loads

“If you can’t measure it you can’t manage it”

There are many variables in how you apply a load and how you measure it.

So in the blog we’re going to take a look at the bigger picture of training loads, as well as zooming down to the daily battle of improving fitness.

The first step to avoiding the boom and bust cycle is becoming aware of your training load.

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You can test the seriousness of an athlete by the presence of the wearable technology they use, with beginners relying on feel or an app.

With increased interest in progressing your training, the next step is investing in a GPS Running Watch.

With a GPS watch you can collect data such as:

  • Distance

  • Time

  • Current Pace

  • Average Pace

  • Splits

  • Cadence

  • Heart Rate

  • Estimated VO2 Max

Without a GPS watch, the research shows athletes are traditionally quite poor at measuring their training load.

For example, a recent paper shows athletes with bone stress injuries, tended to under-report their training volume.

We learnt from blog post 1 that many of us, especially beginners, under-appreciate the demands that running places on our body, and subsequently go onto cause damage and injury.

You can’t blame the activity

Often, when injury happens, we can be quick to blame the activity itself - believing it is dangerous and best to avoid it.

This can lead to a downward spiral of reduced fitness and lowered tissue resilience, further increasing the risk of injury.

No doubt this is how running probably got a bad rap and why your ill-informed relative continues to insist that running is wrecking your knees (it isn’t).

Instead of worrying about local tissue damage and pathology (aside from accidents), we can simply modify the load we are placing on ourselves, as this arguably has a greater influence on recovery more than any other factor.

As humans, we have bodies that are more like gardens that, given the right conditions, flourish and thrive, and once or twice per year give off the fruits and rewards of our labour.

Unlike a car, that tends to wear out with use - we are adaptable and actually thrive when given the right amount of positive challenge / stimuli.

Taking this view, we can see our injuries and niggles in through a wider lens.

If we understand how the various training loads affects us, we are less likely to be worried when the aches and pains strike.

We’ll talk more about that later.

For now, a quick story…

Getting your training recipe right

Admittedly, I am terrible at baking.

A few years ago I found this delicious cookie recipe.

I used to make it for our hikes and when I pulled them out on our breaks and got a Masterchef worthy applause from friends and family.

But then something odd happened…they started testing terrible!

Maybe because I have 2 kids now and I’m rushing around a bit more, so when I go to throw the ingredients in, I’m a bit more haphazard.

After a few more tries, they continued to taste even worse.

I finally had a good chat with my wife about why they tasted so bad, and I realized I had been adding waaaayyy to much bi-carb soda.

For some odd reason, instead of the half teaspoon that the recipe called for, I had got into the habit of grabbing the box and pouring some in, without measuring it…obviously way too much, so the cookies came out tasting weird and bitter.

In my head, I knew when baking it was important to measure things (my wife is a big stickler for that)…but subconsciously I was like,

“A little bit is good, so more must be better right?”

So I had wrecked the cookies by accidentally adding too much of one element and the balance of flavours was completely off and impossible to enjoy.

I think running can be like cooking.

You have all your ingredients and if you focus on getting the balance right - you will have a successful time achieving your goals and your enjoyment will sky rocket.

On the other hand, get the balance wrong, and your body will soon tell you.

When you look at experienced chefs - they are continously tasting their cooking - and modifying and adapting as they go to produce the best result.

But we need a way of measuring, otherwise there will a tendency to stuff things up, just like I did with the cookies.

The great thing about training is you can mix in the ingredients as you like, put it in the oven, and see what comes out on race day.

There are so many options and variables that everyone has their own unique blend.

But once you find a good recipe you stick to it.

Won’t looking at my numbers take away the fun of running?

I know there are some purists out there who resist the notion of monitoring their training.

I completely understand and I think there is a real risk of getting distracted/addicted to your watch and losing the connection to how you’re feeling and enjoying being in the moment with what’s going on around you.

But if you are always injured, or not achieving the goals you set out to achieve, then to me, that is worthy of further investigation of your training habits.

Running by intuition can play an important role in a balanced program (see below) - but sometimes it can be completely off.

The best example is someone who’s results have plateaued, and their intuition tells them they simply need to push themselves harder and harder in training. They may even feel like they are mentally weak.

In reality, they be simply over-trained and exhausted due to an un-monitored and overly demanding training program.

Imagine if you were to buy a lamborghini - that is incredibly powerful - but it didn’t come with a speedometer. The risk of speeding and getting yourself a ticket would be fairly high.

Investing a small amount of energy into monitoring your training ultimately should lead to less injuries - which means more time and enjoyment from the sport.

And you should be able to run happily as long as you want to into old-age.

Finding your optimal training

The graph below shows the relationship between training load and optimal performance.

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The ideal training stimulus ‘sweet spot’ is the zone between improving fitness and building physical capacity, while at the same time limiting the negative consequences of training (ie, injury, illness, fatigue and overtraining).

Both under-training and over-training will lead to poor performance.

As you progress your training, your body will have the ability to absorb greater training loads.

Finding that sweet spot can be a little tricky, so how could monitoring our training load help us?

10% Rule

For many years athletes have used the 10% rule to guide their training - that is to never increase training load more than 10% on a week to week basis.

This has worked well for many athletes as a general guide, especially during the mid-phase of a training program.

But for athletes just starting out the 10% rule would probably be too slow of a build-up and athletes who are already at their peak it would be too much of an increase.

See the bigger picture of your training load

Another strategy, popularized by sports scientist Tim Gabbett is to use a ratio that compares your short term training (typically measured over a week) with your base fitness (typically measured as the average weekly load over the past month).

This is know as the acute:chronic load ratio.

For example if you run an average of 50km per week over the past month and the next week in your training cycle, you cover another 50km, the ratio would be:

Acute 50km (most recent week) : Chronic 50km (average over the past 4 weeks) —> 50 divided by 50 = 1

A score of 1 means your fitness will remain pretty stable, with a very low chance of injury (see graph below).

If you increase your subsequent week to 60km - the ratio would be:

Acute 60km : Chronic 50km —> 60 divided by 50 = 1.3

Tim Gabbett’s extensive work has suggested that a ratio of 0.8 - 1.3 is generally sustainable and is the ‘sweet spot’ for optimal training (see graph below).

But as your ratio gets up 1.5 or higher, your risk of injury increases.

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Spikes in training loads are necessary to improve fitness, but spikes that are too great can lead to an increased risk of injury (see pic below).

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Excessive spikes in training load normally relate to a sudden increase in volume or intensity.

Often this can happen after a period of reduced activity e.g. coming back from an injury or at the start of pre-season after a holiday.

It can also be related to sudden decrease in your bodies capacity relative to your training loads e.g. high emotional / environmental stress, poor quality sleep, nutritional / digestive issues, serious illness, poor recovery strategies) that increase the chances of an injury developing.

We know that not every time you spike your training load you will get injured, as some athletes are more robust than others. This ratio just gives us a general guide about the increased possibility of injury. Being aware of when your training load is high, you have the advantage of really doubling down on your recovery (sleep, nutrition and maintaining tissue quality) to help absorb to higher demands of training.

We will go into more detail later about some of the factors that influence your likelihood of getting injured, and how you can modify your training to avoid time on the sideline.

Benefit of the acute:chronic ratio

The acute:chronic workload ratio is considered a ‘best practice’ approach to monitor athlete workloads. As stated above, an acute: chronic workload ratio of ≥1.5 has been associated with large increases in injury risk.

The benefit of keeping an eye on the acute:chronic ratio is that is really emphasizes keeping your consistent base training volume relatively stable.

This means you can afford to spike your training loads in order to improve fitness, without increasing the risk of injury.

It’s a rather technical way of monitoring your load and ensuring a safe transition to higher physical capacity.

To become and unbreakable athlete, it definitely helps if you’re not in a rush.

Veteran marathoners and experienced coaches advise it may take 5-10 years to really realize your full potential as a runner / athlete, and building this chronic capacity is what they are alluding to.

How to find your chronic ratio

If you have a Garmin GPS watch, a simple and quick way of monitoring this acute: chronic ratio is to view your ‘Activities’ and check your 4 week average (see Figure below).

On the bottom left hand corner you will see your average distance over the past 4 weeks.

One of the most important metrics you can track (Bottom left hand corner) - Average Weekly Km over the past 4 weeks. This is know as your Chronic Load and is a measure of your general fitness. A good idea to check this number before your plan you upcoming training week.

One of the most important metrics you can track (Bottom left hand corner) - Average Weekly Km over the past 4 weeks. This is know as your Chronic Load and is a measure of your general fitness. A good idea to check this number before your plan you upcoming training week.

To be sure you’re not over-training and increasing the risk of injury - your upcoming training weekly should be between 0.8 and 1.3.

Spikes of 1.5 or more may be tolerated, but do increase your injury risk and you’d need to really put a lot of effort into recovery.

Getting more specific with monitoring load

Another important point - obviously measuring distance covered alone doesn’t tell the full story about your training loads.

A 50km week of intense threshold training is very different to 50km of easy jogging.

If you follow the 80:20 principle (80% of your training easy, 20% hard) as proposed by Matt Fitzgerald, then using your Garmin’s distance would give you a good general guide about how much load you are getting each week.

The other option, more specific way is to use a Rate of Perceived Exertion Scale (RPE) and combine it with your training minutes.
So for every training session, you rate it on a scale of 0-10, where 10 is the hardest.

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Then you would multiply the minutes trained with your RPE score to get the more accurate training load number.

E.g. you did a hard run at 60 mins

60 mins x 8 RPE = 400 units of load in that training session.

Using the acute:chronic training ratio over the course of weeks and months here would be highly specific, but obviously quite time consuming for the average runner and probably more for those wanting to take things more seriously.

There are some spreadsheets available online, also using Strava’s premium monitoring can give some good data that helps track your intensity and workload.

Coming back from injury / illness / time off running

We know from the research - the biggest risk for an injury is a past injury - meaning the way we return to our chosen sport is often not ideal.

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Arguably the reason many athletes suffer injury after injury, could well be the way we manage their load upon return.

For example, let’s say you’ve averaged 50km per week over the past 4 weeks, and your training is going great in the build up to your next race.

Your chronic load is 50km, meaning a spike in load up 1.3 x 50 would be probably be OK.

That means your following week’s training, you have some extra time and want to build some volume, so you can (everything else being equal) build up to 65km in the week.

On the other hand, let’s say you come down with the flu, or happen to sustain an injury meaning you have 2 full weeks off running.

The last 4 weeks all of a sudden looks a little different:

Chronic Load Calculation:

50 + 50 + 0 + 0 = 100

100 divided by 4 weeks = Chronic Load of 25

So that crucial first week after your break - you may be anxious to get back to running and you return your standard 50km week (or even try and make up for lost time by doing a 65km week).

Acute to Chronic Load Calculation:

50 divided by 25 = 2 - which puts you at a dramatically higher risk of further injury.

Once again, going by the acute:chronic load calculator - increases of up to x 1.3 are generally safe.

In this example, the runner would have been wise to limit their first week back to a much more manageable 25km- 32.5km.

Just to confuse you a little more, injuries don’t peak until 3-6 weeks after training errors take place, so keeping accurate training data becomes even more vital.

Take home message

The key message here is the higher your consistent monthly average, the more you license you have to spike your load safely, in preparation for your specific upcoming event.

If you regularly miss days or weeks of training and you try and make up for it with higher intensity sessions, you may be setting yourself up for a frustrating boom-bust cycle of injury - where you have high physical fitness, but your body is continually breaking down, from one injury to the next.

Before you plan your training week, have a quick check of your average weekly load over the past 4 weeks, and make your decisions from there.

This approach will test your patience and it requires some faith in the science, as well as your body’s ability to adapt.

The slower, more considered return to running will pay dividends weeks and months later when you have made a successful return to training and running.

Training Guidelines

If we look at top world class runners, they schedule 2-3 hard sessions maximum per week where they are really pushing themselves.

The rest of their training (80%) is spent at easy intensities, focusing on building their volume and efficiency.

Other training tips include:

  • Consistency in training trumps short-term intensity

  • Allow a proper warm-up and cool down. Your warm-up may involve some foam rolling and gluteal / core engager exercises (especially if you sit a lot of the day) to prepare your body for optimal performance

  • Schedule a rest day at least once per week, or 2-3 days per week if your a beginner

  • Never do two very hard training days back to back (unless you are very experienced)

  • Take a recovery week every third or fourth week to consolidate the training you’ve done and keep you fresh and motivated for the next training cycle

  • Build your low intensity base volume early in the season and then focus on speed work later

  • Saves the long hill runs for later in your training program, but you can include short hill sprints (e.g. 10 x 10 secs) early in your program to help build leg strength

Increasing Training Loads - What To Look Out For

As you start increasing your training load, certain tissues have a tendency to become overloaded.

The following graph gives an excellent visual of the common issues many runners face.

Photo Credit: Rich Wily Running Symposium La Trobe 2018

Photo Credit: Rich Wily Running Symposium La Trobe 2018

If you are doing a lot of ‘speed work’ - your calf, plantar fascia and achilles is at high risk. Tendon soreness/pain can often take 24 - 72 hours after sessions to fully come on, so that is something to be aware of as you plan your week.

If you are doing more higher volume work - your knee, tibia and lower limb stress injuries are more prevalent.

If you have a history of certain injuries, it may be worthwhile avoiding excess speed or volume work in the short-term until you have built up a better base foundation.

Signs of over-training:

Sometimes we can push our training too far and I think most athletes have had the feeling that comes from over-training.

It’s normal to be fatigued and sore, but there are some other signs that can point towards over-training such as:

  • Lack of enjoyment in training and racing

  • Un-explainable under-performance

  • Persistent, extreme fatigue

  • Increased sense of effort in training

  • Sleep disorders

  • Fluctuating mood

Listening can be hard

It can be hard for runners to listen to their bodies as pain killing hormones such as endorphins can mask the damage.

Ignoring and going into denial early on and turn small niggles into serious injuries.

Sometimes you need to hit rock bottom i.e. you can’t run or train at all due to pain and weakness, before you change your approach.

Monitoring Tissue Quality

The state of your musculo-skeletal system is generally a pretty good predictor of the state of your body’s readiness to perform.

Improving body awareness through things like massage, foam rolling, stretching, yoga and stretching can give you an early sign that your tissues may not be handling the loads of your training.

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As a Physio, I spent a lot of my time ‘panel beating’ tight muscles and get a sense of whether a tissue is abnormally tight. If appropriate we can perform a series of treatments, over time noticing the tissues moving towards a better state of equilibrium.

More importantly, I can give feedback to the client about extra self-care they may need to focus on, teaching people more about potential ‘blind spots’ they have e.g. hidden tight spots, under-active muscle firing or an inefficient movement pattern that could increase injury risk and limit performance.

If you are ‘tight everywhere’ which many athletes complain of - it’s most likely a training overload situation and no amount of foam rolling or needling will help until you address the underlying cause - so the reason for this blog series.

Injuries

Warning signs that you have an injury may include:

  • intense pain > 5/10

  • night pain

  • excess swelling and inflammation

  • pain that gets worse with exercise or 24-48 hours following exercise

The most important way to avoid injuries is to not train through pain.

If you are feeling pain from an injury, it is wise to take 3 days off running, then have 2-3 days of low intensity running to see how it responds.

Getting into to see your local Physio early on can also be a big help in getting the best treatment and plan in place.

Intuitive - Running by Feel

As you become more experienced as an athlete, you learn to trust what your body is telling you on a day to day basis and make adjustments to your program.

Listening to your body over time will help you to define your optimal training formula in terms of the volume and intensity of your training.

I’m a big believer that getting out there and running more is the best teacher. Intuition is a great guide - and your body is always talking to you and giving you hints and tips about what it needs.

The other thing to keep in mind is that when you’re feeling good - it can often be hard to know when to call it quits on a session as there is a temptation to push that little bit extra in the hope of gaining that extra bit of fitness.

Bradley Croker, co-host of the Inside Running Podcast summed it up perfectly, when he was reflecting on his own pattern of injury -

“When you’re feeling good, rather than increasing load by 10%, you should probably decrease load by 10%”.

Feeling good means you may well be at the peak of a training cycle and rather than pushing on even harder, an easy week absorbing your training and enjoying the benefits of improved fitness may be what you really need.

As small wins accumulate, you gradually gain more confidence in your body.


Every run is a battle between current capacity vs load

We’ve zoomed out and looked at weekly/monthly training practices that can be optimised, leading to safely building your physical capacity and protect you against injury.

But that is only half of the equation…

The second half of the blog will focus on zooming in and seeing what happens every time you perform a training run or competition at the micro-level.

As a rehab community, we’ve had a big focus on the load and talking about training practices, but not as much focus on the readiness, or capacity of our bodies to match that load.

Essentially every training session is a battle between your current capacity (which can fluctuate daily) and the load you’re applying.

In an ideal world you would structure your training so there are only incremental differences in the demands of training and your current capacity.

A process that stimulates continual positive adaptations in your fitness (see graph below).

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Key point: your physical capacity can vary significantly day by day

We can apply the same load on two different days - and have two significantly different results.

There are a number of important modifying factors that decrease your physical capacity in the short-term.

These factors may include things such as:

  • Inadequate fueling (dehydration or lack of carbohydrates / glucose)

  • Digestive issues

  • Injury

  • Soft tissue issues e.g. excessive tightness or neuro-muscular inefficiencies

  • Inadequate recovery from previous session

  • Static stretching right before a run

  • Poor sleep

  • Decreased motivation

  • High stress levels

  • Long work hours

  • Excess sitting

  • Other lifestyle factors e.g. excessive alcohol consumption

  • Inappropriate equipment e.g. worn shoes

  • Caffeine (lack of)

  • Viral illness

  • Altitude

Non-modifiable factors:

  • weather e.g. high humidity, wind e.t.c

  • age

  • gender

  • pregnancy

  • serious illness / accidents

The more of these modifiable factors you have in a given training session or competition - the bigger the gap or mismatch between your capacity and demand, thus the greater risk for developing an injury.

Screen Shot 2019-05-31 at 8.50.34 pm.png

Key point:

Significant spikes in training load can be a result of a mis-match in current capacity vs training load (e.g. too much training, or a body that has dropped in capacity).

These modifiable factors may be present on a particular day, or they might lurk in the background over months/years.

For example being nutritionally deficient in calcium or vitamin D can pre-dispose you to stress fractures, which develop over months.

Becoming aware of these modifiable factors (and there are plenty more that haven’t been listed) is huge step to avoiding over-training and injury.

Ultimately it means you can set realistic expectations and work towards them.

Getting the most out of your training sessions

Managing your modifiable factors can be a way to manipulate your training to make it easier or more challenging.

As you gain more experience, you can start to play around with the variables to cause positive stress to your system.

Obviously on race day, you’re looking for your physical capacity to be 100% to give your best performance.

Sometimes it doesn’t always work out like you had hoped.

An example: My Melbourne Half-Marathon disaster.

The best example I can give you came last year at the Melbourne Half Marathon in October.

I was going for a PB in the half-marathon and thought I had done enough in my training build-up to warrant giving it a good crack.

But I was to be brought down to earth quite dramatically!

Melbourne_Marathon_2013.jpg

These are some of the factors that lead me to a dramatically lower capacity on the day of the half-marathon:

  • we did a road trip from Adelaide over 2 days, arriving the evening before the half marathon and then spent another 1 hour in the car driving to the race the following morning - so my hip flexors were incredibly tight

  • had a 2 month old son who was awake during the night, which meant very little sleep

  • nutrition in the lead up to the race was very average - being on the road and eating a lot of crap

  • alcohol consumption - we were staying with my father in law - so just to be social a few beers were consumed the night before the run

  • de-hydrated - it was an unusually hot and windy day in Melbourne

  • late to the start line - so a little stressed and missed out on running with my pace group, so battling to catch them in the first 5km and running way above my goal pace

This culminating in getting to the 10k mark completely spent - and I was forced to walk and shuffle to the finish line completely burn out and no where close to a PB.

You’re a different runner every time you run

Running coach Greg McMillan states you’re “a different runner every time you run” and you need to appreciate the subtleties of your what you’re feeling every day (he talks about this in depth on Tina Muir’s Running for Real Podcast).

When you’re not feeling great, forcing bad workouts rob you of confidence and increase your chance of injury.

Taking charge of your own training by modifying and adapting your training means you can string some solid weeks of training together - putting you on the fast track to performance and becoming un-breakable.

Many elite athletes follow these principles - for example Kara Groucher stated that if only two out of every three scheduled training sessions go ahead as planned, that is a really good result.

She and her coach are happy to improvise if she isn’t feeling great or still recovering from her previous workout, possibly scrapping the session altogether.

So never be afraid to modify and adapt your training until you a state of readiness.

This internal awareness / intuition and being open to adapting your training on a daily basis is where the game can be won and lost.

It involves a process of constant decision making and listening to your body.

All scheduled workouts should be considered provisional, until you get a feel of what your capacity is on the day.

Brad Hudson and Matt Fitzgerald summed it up perfectly in their book, Run Faster - From the 5k to the Marathon:

“The art of coaching, or self-coaching, is fundamentally a matter of taking a systematic approach to training that makes better performance more or less inevitable, if not entirely predictable.

It begins with the premise that you cannot predict the future - or specifically how your body will respond to training.

Therefore every workout is treated as an experiment.

You then allow the results of these experiments to guide you toward a future of running faster.

Training patterns that seem to hold you back are eliminated, while those that seem to push you forward are kept and possibly increased or intensified.

Sooner or later this approach is bound to lead you to new personal best performances”.

How to adapt your training

If you’re aren’t feeling great, you don’t have to fully take a day off training. Here are some other options:

  • have an easy restorative run instead of doing a session

  • cross train with a swim, walk or hike in nature instead of run

  • double down on nutrition, massage, sleep

  • yoga class - especially restorative

  • pilates class to get your deep core stabilisers switching on

But having a good pain threshold and learning to push through is a good thing, right?

Well, as always - it depends.

Sometimes having the ability to dig deep in spite of less than ideal conditions can be very helpful.

In fact training to be ‘anti-fragile’ means getting out there and chasing challenging situations that make your stronger and more resilient.

Intelligently and judiciously using these modifiable factors in training can make training tougher to (hopefully) make race day easier.

Hard training and suffering is important - but being smart about how often and when you push yourself into the red zone is the key.

Conclusion

I know it’s been a long read - so great job for getting this far…I hope it’s been useful for you.

A big thanks to legends Tim Gabbett and Michael Nitschke who inspired this blog.

Please share with your friends who you think might find it helpful.

Stay tuned for next months final chapter, Recovery.