January 7, 2013

How I went from Injury Prone to Injury Resistant

In my Recovery Keys for Marathon Training post, I briefly said something about how the fact that I already run a lot allows me to recover a lot quicker. But how do you get to that point, where you can handle a lot of training volume without breaking down? Back in the fall, I did a recap of my running "history" (Full Post) and mentioned that from 2002-2008, I was pretty much an injury prone underachiever when it came to running. I was sporadic and inconsistent. I'd have a couple good races or months of training, then disappear for a while. Over and over again. I didn't run even try to run seriously again for over 2 years.

Then I decided to get back into "serious" training in Fall 2010. It still wasn't with the goal of becoming a fast runner. In November 2010 I wrote - "I want to approach this winter with the goal of being in ridicliously good condition for the start of the spring 2011 mountaineering season." Funny how the goals and priorities change. I started running 100+ miles per week and did that for over 6 straight months before finally "just" running a 90 mile week the following May. During that same time period, Andrea and I were backcountry skiing for hours upon hours every weekend. In the past, this is the amount of training that would have had me injured and mentally burnt out after a month. But I was getting stronger and stronger the whole time.

The amount of activity we were doing was staggering. But you know what else I found out was staggering? - the body's ability to adapt to the demands placed upon it. I started to realize that my capacity for physical activity was much higher than I could have imagined. Even now, I'm still nowhere close to the limit of what I can handle. My theory is that when your body is always expecting you to throw something else at it... it starts to anticipate that, and figures out how to recover quicker. Highly scientific, I know. But once you start logging consistent miles and you are staying healthy, its actually easy to stay in that groove. It becomes automatic.

I would NOT recommend making a jump like I did. You can't build up mileage dramatically over a short time period because your tendons and bones don't adapt as quickly as your muscles and cardiovascular system do. Increasing your weekly mileage by 5-10 miles each training cycle is the smart approach and reduces your likelihood of injuries. That's what you should do if you want to have a reasonable chance of taking advantage of an increased training load.

I got away with what I did for two reasons:

1) I was lucky with injuries.

2) I was preparing myself for the marathon training I currently do, years before I even realized it. I lived in Vail, Colorado (elevation 8,000 feet) for those two "lost" years, from 2008-2010. I wasn't running seriously during that time period... I'd go out for long runs sometimes, but never did a workout, never thought about racing. I thought I was done racing. I didn't keep a log, but probably averaged 30-40 miles per week during those years. Sometimes I wouldn't run for a week. One time I didn't run for about three weeks (jacked up my ribs in a skiing accident!). Sometimes I'd run doubles. I basically just did whatever I felt like doing. I hiked a lot, and I skied a lot, I played recreational soccer and basketball. During the winter, before work, I'd hike up Vail Mountain in the dark (and freezing cold!), then ski back down as the sun rose.

This was my reward for 4am hikes in Vail before work. And I got to ski back down :-)
On the weekends I'd ski all day... when the snow wasn't powdery, I'd just lap moguls until my quads wanted me dead. During the spring/summer/fall, I'd go on epic, long hikes... climbing almost all of the 14,000 foot peaks in the state... many of them several times. I pushed myself hard during these weekends in the mountains. When Andrea and I first moved to Utah in the summer of 2010, we spent a TON of time of hiking and backpacking. Carrying a 30 pound backpack for 225 miles through the Sierra Nevada mountains will strengthen your connective tissue more than any amount of running or ancillary exercises ever will. I also started gradually running more during 2010... I was more motivated once I met Andrea and we started running together a lot. I dropped some weight, and before you know it, I was running better than ever.

Capitol Peak (August 2009). Climbing mountains was a huge part of my life.
So I guess its not really true at all that I wasn't training from 2008-2010. In some ways, maybe I was preparing myself for what was ahead in the best possible way? Thinking about it now, it might have been the perfect lead-in to the hard training that I do now. Take a look at the final quote from the Lydiard and Canova coaches round-table:
I think the perfect preparation of the future would include months of low-intensity concentric exercise firstly to protect the joints while getting the hours into the aerobic and  cardiovascular systems, followed by months of long hikes with heavy packs and boots over very hilly courses to condition all the joint, muscle and tendon systems, as well as being at the ideal pace and power output to get the Type I slow twitch mitochondria maxing out, in order to provide the metabolic furnace that will later on strip fatty acids, glucose and whatever down for packaging and delivery to the faster muscle fibre types required for fast sustained running at the top levels.

That pretty much sounds like exactly what I was doing for two years, doesn't it? I was spending lots of time moving through the mountains (at high-altitude), and I went from being injury-prone to ridiculously injury resistant.

In hindsight, Andrea and I have talked about this, and we agree that is how I did it - how I got my body ready to handle huge amounts of running. There was no plan, it happened by accident and was a perfect storm of sorts. So my recommendation is to either move to Central Colorado, embrace the lack of oxygen, breathe in the cold, cold air, and simply be an outdoor athlete for a couple years... but if that isn't in the cards for you, build up slowly... a little at a time... add in cross-training, add in doubles. It will pay off.


  1. As I'm reading this, I just have to emphasize a couple things -

    Jake has a very obsessive personality when it comes to, well anything :) So when he says he skied a lot, hiked a lot, that means A LOT. Don't look at the overall mileage he ran (although I think he is being wayy conservative), but instead his everyday routine . He would to get up, hike 2000ft up to Vail Mtn and ski down followed by running an hour in the afternoons. Then on the weekends, he would either ski all day followed by a run in the evening or hike all day. So total time exercising per day was probably in the 2-3 hour range on the weekdays and 8+ hours on the weekends. Over 200 days skiing and over 500,000 vertical feet for those two years. This is really what has enabled him to stay injury free for running and handle so much mileage. However, it has been a while since we strengthened those tendons and ligaments and I need to work on my injury resistance so we might just need a revisit to the backpacking/mountaineering world :)

    1. Very true points, and a good addition to the post.

      2200 ft to the top of Eagle's Nest, 3000 ft to Patrol Headquarters. I did a more hikes from Lionshead to Eagle's Nest (usually b/c the snow was better), but in the second winter I started doing quite a few more of the "longer" morning efforts up to the top of Chair 4.

  2. These two posts (and other training posts Andrea has written) are probably the most informative I have seen on strengthening/injury prevention. And this is after reading over 30 running books plus monthly running mags.

    I think the thing all this literature misses is group of people (such as myself) who have graduated as beginner runners and are ready to jump into the next level. The problem is, the information STAYS at that beginner level. I dont need another book to tell me to only increase by 10%, to stretch/foam roll, to eat "healthy" etc etc. I do all those things and am ready to get some more nuanced advice - such as the importance of protein, the emphasis on your long long slow buildup with some AMAZING sounding hikes and skiing etc etc. This really helps people like me understand how we can really move into that next level and prepare for some great running, not just this year, but two, three years down the road.

    So thanks!!!


    1. Thanks Penny. That's an awfully nice comment.

      I agree, that once you get past a certain point, the information you can get from the books becomes less and less useful, and the information you can get from talking to people, personal experience, etc., becomes what you really need. You never stop learning - everyone out there has things that work for them... I like to consider everything and then filter it down to what works for me.

      The main thing to remember (and it sounds so corny) but if you really believe in what you are doing, and have a little patience through the ups and downs, you can achieve some pretty special things and get to a level of running you might not have even thought possible.

  3. Jake, your blog is awesome! The past couple posts have been very informative. Glad to hear you'll be racing PF Changs and Phoenix as well, hope to see you there!

  4. Jake/ Andrea-
    This is super awesome information and like the comment made before, this is way better than anything I have read in any mag or book to stay injury free. I may take that trip to Colorado where my uncle is living! :) Thank you so much for sharing because in my eyes this is definitely worth money!

    1. Thanks Bryce. See you at the race next weekend!