Previously, I wrote about why you absolutely need to avoid injury. Today I’ll provide you with some simple (though not always easy) ways to do so. Without further ado, here they are...
1. Look after your gut health
This is number one on my list without any question. The health of our gut is intricately bound up with our immune function, so many of those irritating infections that many athletes struggle to overcome are the result not of coming into contact with someone else who was ill, but of having poor gut function.
The gut with it’s mass of neural tissue filled with important neurotransmitters has been called “the second brain”. There are studies that demonstrate that having poor gut function affects not only your susceptibility to physical illness, but also mental illness.
The scary thought is that the majority of endurance athletes on a traditional diet and fuelling regime probably have worse than optimal gut function - anyone ever had a race ruined by an upset stomach? Does it happen every time?
- Significantly reduce your simple carbohydrate intake and consider replacing gels, sports drinks etc as your race and training fuel options.
- Eat a variety of fermented foods (kimchi, sauerkraut etc). These will help to replenish the beneficial bacteria in your gut. I saw some stuff recently that suggested that eating such foods can even help with issues like depression.
- Drink bone broth. The nutrients extracted from bones and connective tissue when they are boiled for an extended period are known to help to restore gut function.
2. Drink lots of water
Add a pinch of salt to each cup of water and drink plenty of water every day. Your muscles and connective tissue rely on having plenty of fluid in order to function properly.
Many endurance athletes are chronically dehydrated. “But my urine is clear?” you say. Unfortunately, all this means is that you’re drinking a lot and your kidneys are working fairly well. It doesn’t indicate that the water is actually getting into your tissues. If you are chronically dehydrated, it will take a few days for the water to get everywhere it should, so one day drinking lots of water won’t do it.
- Develop a habit, where every cup of coffee, tea or other beverage is accompanied by a glass of water.
- Adopt the “2 litre bottle strategy”, where you fill a two litre bottle with water every morning and commit to drink it by the end of the day. This will vary by individual: In my case, it would have to be a 4 litre bottle.
- Include foam rolling and similar self-myofascial release work every day. Rolling your tissues encourages them to take up more fluid. Have you ever noticed how your massage therapist will always offer you a glass of water after your treatment?
3. Look after your mobility
Mobility isn’t stretching, it’s your ability to achieve the normal end-range of the movement around a joint whilst maintaining appropriate motor control. Stretching is simply hanging out in a position, hoping the muscle will get longer. The length of the muscle isn’t the problem however, it’s your central nervous system’s willingness to let you go to that end range, the position of the joint in the capsule or the inability of the opposing musculature to provide enough force to move the joint in the opposite movement to the “tight” muscle.
There’s a lot that goes into improving mobility and it’s a case of working on it daily. Your hamstrings aren’t short because they need stretching (in fact they’re often not short at all), they’re simply the victim of habitual bad posture. If you think a 20-second stretch is going to solve the problems created by the habits you adopt in the other 23 hours, 59 minutes and 20 seconds, I’d suggest you're kidding yourself.
- Foam rolling and other myofascial release work should be done daily.
- Learn how much mobility you should have and work on it daily (joint positions, end-range mobility, motor control).See a body work professional regularly. Should you see a chiropractor, physiotherapist, osteopath, bowen practitioner, massage therapist or …? It really doesn’t matter much, just find someone who gets results for you and stick with them.
- Consider a standing workstation. One of the biggest mobility killers in our modern world is sitting. We sit for 8 hours a day at work and wonder why we have short hip flexors, tight hamstrings, gluten that don’t fire properly and a thoracic spine that is fused in a constant state of flexion (resulting in sore shoulders). When I worked in retail I stood for 9 hours a day and almost never did any run training, yet I could run a 3-hour marathon. There’s something in that.
4. Reduce your lifestyle stress as much as possible.
Recently I have seen more and more folks who display symptoms of some level of adrenal/chronic fatigue syndrome. While it’s not actually a recognised medical condition, it’s very real for a lot of people. Distressingly, it’s also accepted by many as a normal part of our modern lifestyle. The problem is that it simply robs you of the joy of living, doing your sport, spending time with your kids etc.
At the root of the problem is the stressful stuff we put our bodies and minds through on a daily basis. Remember that the stress response is the same if you’re worried about having a fight with your spouse as it would be if you were being chased by a lion. Over time, these repeated fight or flight reactions somehow cause us to become unable to react and we enter a state of near perpetual fatigue and listlessness.
- Get enough sleep.
- Make sure your workouts are not constantly at an intensity that is on the edge. Hard workouts have their place, but not every day.
- Take time to chill out and do something other than sport or work. Find an activity at which you are not going to try to be competitive. I love going surfing, just bobbing up and down on the ocean, scanning the horizon for the next set. I am never going to be that good at it, but I love it all the same.
- Actively look for those things that cause you stress and find solutions to small things before they become big things.
5. Actively work on your sport’s technique elements in every workout.
There is no point running for 2 hours if 90 minutes of that run are going to be you slogging along with poor technique. All you’re doing is reinforcing your ability to run like a tired runner.
A better approach is to split your run into 2 x 1 hour and include intervals in each run where you mindfully focus on running as efficiently as possible.
- Technique intervals in every workout.
- Make sure that every session has a goal. It’s never a good idea to go running, riding, swimming, lifting weights or whatever with no plan beforehand.
6. Do a variety of fitness activities.
Just because you’re a triathlete, doesn’t mean you have to do just triathlon. In fact, doing so will predispose you to getting injured. To quote Robert A Heinlein, “Specialisation is for insects.” Humans are simply not built to be the best at anything physical: There are animals that can run faster than us, some that can go for longer, many that are stronger than us. The reality is that humans are probably the ultimate generalists on the planet, but in order to remain healthy we need to embrace that ability to do a variety of activities and do them.
- Go rock climbing, bouldering or hiking. Different I know, but they’re all outside in nature.
- Join in the local pickup game of touch rugby, touch football (for my US readers) or basketball.
- Do some calisthenics (gymnastic-type body weight exercises).
- Just find something different and do it.
7. Know when to stop.
Recently I’ve seen a lot of posts from kettlebell athletes showing off their torn and blistered hands as if they’re a badge of honour. Why are they torn? Simply because the workout was 20 sets and they HAD to complete the workout. I love what Pavel Tsatsouline of Strongfirst has to say about injury: “It’s your fault.”
Possibly Pavel's quote too, but anyway also from Strongfirst: “Don’t be stupid!"
- Simply be mindful and stop before you get hurt, not because you’re hurt.
Bottom line: Injury is not a natural part of being an athlete. We’re probably much less athletic than our ancestors for whom getting injured wasn’t an opportunity to lie on the sofa, eat chips and feel sorry for themselves, but rather an event that put them at risk of being eaten by another predator. It would be a pretty stupid design (and we wouldn’t have survived evolution) if going for a regular run in order to catch our food meant we inevitably got injured, wouldn’t it?