When You End Up With an Injury During Training for a Big Race

Training Tips

I get a lot of emails each week. Mostly from runners like you, who are looking for some advice, some REAL advice. Not sponsored, not biased, not judge-y. Some support for a runner from a runner without being looked at like a crazy person.

As someone who owns a business called Running for Real, you would hope I would be good at giving exactly that; running how it REALLY is.

I like to think I do a pretty good job. I respond to every email I receive (okay, so not media pitches that are clearly copy and pasted, but pretty much everything else). If you take the time to be genuine with me and share something personal to you, I WILL get back to you.

One thing that comes up often is where a runner is trying not to worry….definitely an understatement, I know that better than anyone…when you are in training for something that matters and something goes wrong, it is almost impossible not to FREAK OUT. I imagine sirens going off, smoke everywhere, panicked workers inside our brain running around screaming. When something goes wrong with our running, it DOES bother us, and overall, that is a good thing, it means something to you.

However, I thought it was about time I wrote an article about it. I will still respond to your email, but maybe I can send you this way to remind you that you are not alone in this. This is what Running for Real is all about, showing one another that we ALL go through struggles and hard moments. But it will also remind you of what you need to tell yourself, and maybe what you can tell others to help them when they come to you panicking too.

Does this sound familiar?

You have picked a goal race, started getting excited about it, and figured out what training plan/coach you are going to use. You start thinking about how good it is going to feel when you run that race, when you CRUSH your previous personal best and finish the race with a smile.

Sure, there are a lot of hard miles in between now and then, but you are ready to do this, and you feel confident that you can.

You start ticking off the miles, putting the work in, and feeling good about your plan ahead.

Until disaster strikes; an injury or sickness flares up out of nowhere. Life throws a curveball that means you have to miss a few days.

You had this perfect plan, you knew exactly what you needed to do till race day, and now it is off.

Do I try to make up missed workouts? Do I carry on as if nothing happened? Do I start from where I left off, and just cut days out somewhere down the road?

There are so many questions, and it can be overwhelming to know which way to turn, especially if you are not working one on one with a coach.

Firstly though, and this is most important, DO NOT PANIC!

I know that’s easy to say, I JUST told you that I panic the same way you do, but what I can remind you now, is that almost every runner will have some setback during their training period requiring a few days off, especially if it is something physically intense as marathon training. Whenever we are pushing our bodies to the limit to prepare for a big race, we are taking a risk. We are walking that fine line between getting stronger and getting injured or sick.

Things can go wrong, and they will. Often at times you least expect it.

Sometimes they go wrong before you barely even got going. I often found it hard to believe how these injuries would appear early on in the cycle, and I would think to myself, If I am getting injuries/niggles already, how am I gonna make it through the HARD part?

Just because something goes wrong now, does not mean you are doomed for the next few months. As long as you take it as a warning sign.

Let me be real with you:

You overdid it somehow. Something went wrong because you pushed your body through what it was ready for.

Take a good look at what you have been doing in the month before. Don’t look at the last few days, it is unlikely it has come from there (even though initially it may seem that way), usually these injuries or your immune system running down enough to get sick will take a few weeks to surface.

Here are some good things to start with:

  • Were you running your easy runs too fast? Could you breathe in through your nose and out through your nose for an entire run (yes, even going up hills) on those days that were listed as easy.
  • Did anything stressful happen in the rest of your life? Stress is stress, your body doesn’t perceive it any differently, but if something BIG happened in your life, maybe that could have contributed?
  • How have you been sleeping?
  • Have you taken time off recently? Could your body need a break? I recommend runners take 1-2 weeks at least twice a year, regardless of whether your race went well or not.
    • If you did take time off recently, did you build back into training too fast?
  • Have you felt tired in your every day runs?
  • Are you running the prescribed effort (or paces) or are you pushing faster than you have been told/set?
  • Are you running further than you have been told to?

One REALLY important one?

Are you eating enough (this is a HUUUGGGEEEEE one). Listen to this podcast if you do not believe me. If you are trying to lose weight or get yourself leaned down to….(gah I hate this word), race weight, then you could be risking it all.

Those are just a start.

There are literally hundreds of things that could have caused your injury/made you sick, and unless you literally rolled your ankle off a curb, do not put it down to bad luck. It is easy for us as runners to dodge responsibility and find an excuse (trust me, I have done it many a time myself), but you need to be able to be honest with yourself. if you are going to make it to race day healthy (and isnt that the most important thing), you need to stop making excuses and look at what YOU did to cause this.

Maybe you need a few days off, maybe you just need to back down a little, but you will have a blip in your training, and you need to remember this moment moving forward. How crappy it feels, and that you don’t want to experience it again, that you will do anything to make sure it doesn’t.

Finally, look at pressure, are you making this race EVERYTHING to you? Is there any way you could be obsessed with your goal? Obsessed with a time that you feel you need to reach to feel valued, to feel like a real runner?

If so, you are playing a dangerous game, and I would strongly suggest finding some other things you enjoy and value to give your life more balance. Journalling might help you, as will a list of joy. There is also a great combination of guests in a podcast series I put to together called Coming Back from Injury and I think you would really benefit from it. And if you are still having a tough time please check out my blog on ways to deal withinjury depression.

Alright, so there is the emotional side of things, but what about how to logistically get around this setback?

This is a veerrrrry general overview of what I would do. For obvious reasons, depending on the injury, you will need to treat it differently.

If you have taken 2-6 days off, I would suggest:

  • Subtract about 25% from each day for the next week, and 10% the following week. After that, continue with your plan as expected, sticking to the lower end of your range for a few weeks.
  • Do at least 2 easy runs before you do another hard day. If whatever happened comes back or you feel worse again. Keep going with those easy runs, maybe even take another few days off.
  • Try to get in to see a medical professional and see if they think you are okay to continue
  • DO NOT try to make workouts up
  • DO NOT run your long run or multiple workouts within 3 days of one another (I would recommend at least 2 days of easy between)

If you have taken 7-14 days off, I would suggest:

  • Go see a medical professional to have them clear you to start running again
  • Run easy for 2 days, take a day off, then 2 days again. ALL EASY. If whatever happened comes back or you feel worse again, either cut the volume in half, take a few more days off, or take every other day off. Repeat this for a week. Try a longer run at the end of this week.
  • After a week, do 3 days on one day off. On the second set of 3 days, try a light workout, half what you were supposed to be doing. If it goes okay, start building back up slowly.
  • After the 10 days of taking it easy plus one workout and one long run, you should be okay to work yourself back to where you were, and continue on from there. You should be keeping on the lower end (maybe even slightly below) of everything the entire time.
  • DO NOT try to make workouts up
  • DO NOT run your long run or multiple workouts within 3 days of one another (I would recommend at least 2 days of easy between)

If you have taken more than 14 days off:

Reassess where you are at. I think time goals should leave you at this point, and the focus should be just to be healthy enough to even start (and complete the race if possible). If you do not think you will be ready, be smart, quit while you are ahead, take some time off, and pick a new goal race. There are plenty out there.

Now, as I mentioned, that is a very rough overview, and what I would do in most situations. However, if you require more than two sets of time off during a training period, you also will need to reconsider if it is worth you racing, if you are okay with just finishing. You obviously have something that is stressing your body out. Maybe it is your training, maybe it is the rest of your life, but this might not be the best time to train for a race, and that is okay.

Hopefully you will learn from the first setback, and things will be fine, but it does happen, and there is nothing wrong with a perspective shift to become just about finishing the race. Just keep in mind that one race is not worth damaging yourself for, especially if it will mean you need a lot more time off to heal later. You have to decide whether it is worth the risk of making it worse. Just like Jared Ward talked about here.

I know having an injury or sickness that takes you out is scary, and can make you feel like you are wasting your precious fitness, but in 2-7 days you are really not going to lose anything, and as I said earlier, most runners will experience something like this in every cycle. I know I did. I don’t think I ever had a marathon build up where I didn’t have to take either a few days off or change a workout as I was not feeling up to it.

You are not first, you are certainly not last, and it doesn’t mean you can’t race well!

There is nothing to be ashamed of, and at the end of the day, it is better to take a few days off now than a lot of days off later.

Be proud of yourself for being smart and stepping back, your body is grateful.

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