Being a Runner in Isolation

As a Physiotherapist observing the world right now I have decided to write down some thoughts with regards to the life of a runner during these times of restriction. The uncertainty of when these restrictions will lift and when races will resume are all questions no one has exact answers for but, regardless of this, I see runners pushing boundaries in the confines of their gardens, pushing the limits of that savored once a day exercise and racing themselves for that Strava segment or 10 km PB. I would be lying if I said I hadn’t done this. One session I went out with the sole purpose of trying to get some segments but later questioned what I was doing. I am returning from injury, stuck in a period of isolation with no immediate races and goals so why am I doing this?

The mentality and mindset of a runner is one that is only understood by a runner and, as a Physiotherapist who treats a lot of runners, this is a fact that always needs careful consideration, especially when trying to rehab!

I’ve taken a step back these last few weeks to review my own training and consider right now, what is it that is important? I know my injuries are probably 95% better now so why am I not striving to gain that last 5%, work on some form and build up that base level of fitness back to where it was ready to peak at the point I will need it, that point when I know that races are back on?! I’m not saying I’m not going to chase Strava segments, who am I kidding, but perhaps I am going to do this in a more structured and meaningful manner.

A great resource in understanding your aerobic base is the book ‘Training for the Uphill Athlete’ by House, Johnston and Jornet ( their website also has some free training resources) who explain in great detail, in a way that is easy to understand, how important it is to have a great aerobic base as this will provide a huge amount of capacity then to get fitter and stronger in the long term. Personally this is most definitely something I have overlooked since returning from injury, sometimes my Physio brain and runner brain do not collaborate and my running brain is far more powerful, why can’t I just return to what I was doing before?

If we also consider the following 2 images which were taken from research by Dye in 2005. He describes tissue capacity as having an ‘Envelope of Function’, there is a fine balance between load and capacity and if we do too much too soon the result often presents as injury. Considering the current climate and not in terms of being injured, our tissues still have a capacity and, perhaps due to this extra time and being at home we all of a sudden are teetering on that fine line of overload. It is a genuine concern of mine what the levels of overload induced injury we might see as Physiotherapists post isolation. Tom Goom is an Physiotherapist and works primarily with runners and his website is a great resource. The following images are taken from an article in relation to load and capacity:

Envelope of Function
During Isolation lets keep it in that manageable area

Finding the balance

So my thoughts on how we might manage our time training to reach the best outcome over all. These are simply my views guided by my career as a Physiotherapist but also as a runner myself.

1. The first step for me was understanding what it is I want to achieve during this time?

All of a sudden we have time, this is something we should be embracing as for a lot of people having time to sit back and think is a rarity. For me, I need that base back and with the few races left in my calendar that are the most likely to still go ahead I have about 2 months to work on this and then 2 months to get ready to peak and build in race specific training.

2. What could be or is potentially stopping progress at the moment?

This is going to be individual for everyone. Here are few considerations:

  • Are you recovering from illness? This is probably the most important point right now. If you have had Covid 19 you need to be extremely careful in your return to running. Return too soon and you will prolong the illness further. Equally we don’t fully understand this virus so even more care is required than perhaps if it had been flu as we know it. It is also important to remember the effect of a hard session on your immune system and the risks therefore associated with this.
  • Think about about any niggles you have had or are noticing at present. Now is the time to address these and get on top of them once and for all. If you are not sure how to manage them, most physios are running remote sessions and will be happy to talk this through with you. Also stop that foam roller from being an ornament and get it used!
  • Consider other ‘stresses’ at the moment be them financial, work, home these are important to consider and a hard session is probably not going to help your immune system during a time when stress levels have peaked. A nice steady session however will probably be quite therapeutic. I, like a lot of others run to manage stress. It is important to be aware of this as this is when it can become tricky to manage load.

3. You feel at a loss about what to do?

This is quite normal and probably on a personal note along side managing any stresses I have had, why I started going out running too far and too fast (for me) each day, everyday. Look back over your last months training and compare it to the previous months training. Then consider point 1 and work back from that end point. Remember, every goal should have some sort of time associated with it (long term and short term goals for example) and be appropriate and realistic for it to be effective and achievable.

4. You keep checking Strava and see what everyone else is doing

This goes without saying isolation aside, never compare yourself to anyone else. You are you and have your own body that will respond to everyday stresses and training stresses in an individual way. Everyone has a different beginning in their development into becoming a runner. They may have done it since they could walk or they could have come to it at a later stage in life. These factors play a huge part on their tissues ability to cope with different stresses placed upon them. Equally, it is too easy now to see what the elite are doing through social media, remember they are elite and again their tissues will work differently and recover differently.

Equally, you don’t know what others plans are, you don’t know what they might be going through and you don’t know if they have niggles that they just keep pushing on through which could ultimately lead to a period off the running. This leads me on to any social network platform…remember, no one ever/rarely posts about how ‘rubbish that run was’ because they were tired or all their niggles were presenting themselves or ‘how hard work it was and they might as well have been going backwards’!

Last but not least….

Lastly in my thoughts about running during this isolation phase, strength training is a factor a lot of times missed. Runners don’t want a huge amount of muscle mass but they do need to be strong and powerful which will help with injury prevention and make you an overall better athlete. In my opinion the areas that should be worked on as a minimum are:

  1. Powerful arms – you will be surprised how important your arms are in driving you forward. Think about that race finish and there are seconds between you and the next place, you drive forward with those arms to push yourself that little bit more. You need that endurance and power in these especially for these moments. Equally try running with your arms by your side, it suddenly becomes a lot harder!
  2. Trunk rotation – this will help with point 1.
  3. An awareness and strength in those pelvic floor muscles to work with the outer pelvic muscles in which we rely heavily upon when running.
  4. Good Gluteal (bum muscles) strength especially in Glute Medius (bottom muscles on the side) which can help with knee control but also eccentric Hamstring (back of thigh) strength and Quads (thigh).
  5. Calf Strength made up from Soleus and Gastrocnemius (muscle with 2 heads you can see). An aside here about Soleus as it is quite an amazing muscle. Soleus is often the key in development of Achilles injuries that runners are well aware of. Soleus, on average generates 50% of your peak vertical movement to elevate your center of mass upwards (Dorn et al. 2012 and Hamner et al. 2013) and generates approximately 30% of your forward propulsion force (Hamner et al. 2012). Now think about running and how hard this muscle has to work! As I am mainly a fell runner, fell runners now think about those forces in running up and down hills…it is huge. Soleus is primarily made of slow twitch fibers so it is that repeated load, doing too much too soon which is likely to affect it.
  6. Lastly, all of the above need to be able to be used effectively when running so running specific drills are critically important for that carry over.

Me doing Running Drills

This is not an extensive list but I have tried to keep it to a minimum focusing on key groups. There isn’t much evidence to say you should be doing some sort of running specific strength session more than 2-3 times a week and I personally would pick 3-4 things to focus on each time. Consider in this session some plyometric and dynamic work that will help improve running form such as the use of ladder drills, mini hurdles, hill repeats, bounding, strides etc you get the idea.

I do hope you find this a useful read and if you have any questions please do feel free to contact me. Like I said at the start, these are simply my thoughts and if it helps reduce just one incidence of a potential overuse injury I’d be happy.

Use this time wisely, go explore new paths and trails from home you never knew existed and go and enjoy your running.

The Bay

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