Trail running

Ultramarathons shouldn’t break your body

Four top tips to avoiding the most common injuries long-distance runners face

Running long distances will take your mind and body to places you never thought you’d go. Play your cards right, and you will come out stronger and fitter than ever before; but, make a few silly mistakes and you could be out of your running shoes for longer than you’d like. Injuries are very common during ultramarathons, but you can avoid a lot of them if you follow some of these tips.

1. Work on your running technique

As your running distance increases, you’ll be taking 40,000+ steps while you’re running. If your running technique is bad, that’s a whole lot of time for a small impact or for some friction to build up into a painful injury.

Here are a few of the most important points to help with injury prevention:

  • Cadence, cadence, cadence: This is a measure of how many steps you take per minute. You should ideally be taking 180 steps per minute. This may feel fast to begin with; if that is the case, try using Spotify playlists to help you keep your cadence up.
  • The heel-striker vs forefoot runner debate: There are countless articles and studies that argue both ways. In reality, the most important aspect of foot-landing is where you land in relation to your hips: your feet should land beneath your hips rather than far in front of them. This reduces the impact on your knee and hip joints, and ensures you are propelling yourself forwards rather than back.
  • Stand up tall: Runners tend to lean forwards, especially when they get tired. Focus on standing tall and actively pushing your hips forwards.

A paid coaching session to improve your running technique is a small price to pay for miles and miles of uninjured fun.

2. Build up slowly

When you’re building up your mileage, you should try not to increase it by more than 10–15% each week. If you’re starting at 10k and working your way up to 50k, this should take you at least 15 weeks.

A common training strategy is to have 3 hard build-up weeks followed by one recovery week, where you drop your mileage to help your body recover. This week shouldn’t be a full rest week — instead, replace a couple of your runs with a cycle or other cross-training session.

3. Learn about injuries

The more you run, the more you learn about your body, and you will start understanding pain that is safe to push through and pain that is not. Reading up about common long-distance running injuries can help you distinguish between the two. Below are some of the most common injuries, but for more details, there is an extensive paper on ultra injuries here.

  • Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome: Most commonly observed in female athletes, Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome causes dull, aching pain at the front of the knee. Pain can feel worse after long periods of sitting with bent knees.
  • Stress fracture: A stress fracture is a very small ‘crack’ or fracture in your bone. Stress fractures are most commonly seen in the foot, tibia or femur of long-distance runners, and are usually caused by fatigued muscles no longer being able to protect bones from shock. These are difficult to diagnose, but may be present if you feel localized tenderness and swelling.
  • Iliotibial Band (ITB) Friction Syndrome: The IT Band runs from the side of the hip down to the knee, and, if inflamed, will cause pain in the upper, outer part of your knee. Any sort of popping sensation while running may be a sign of this.
  • Plantar Fasciitis: Plantar Fasciitis is a common cause of heel pain in runners. You may be suffering from Plantar Fasciitis if you feel pain at the bottom, inner part of your heel when pressure is applied, or if you feel deep pain or sharp stabs in your heel when running.

Understanding what the main running injuries are will help you identify if and when you should take a break from running. Remember, marathon and ultra running is a long game; if you feel an injury coming on, you’re better off taking a couple weeks off instead of injuring yourself beyond repair.

4. Strenghten your glutes

The gluteus maximus is the largest muscle in the human body, so you might as well make the most of it. Strenghtening your glutes will help with your posture and will reduce risk of running injuries. Below are some exercises to try:

  • One-legged squats: Do 3x 10 squats on each leg. When squatting down, try visualizing sitting down in a chair behind you, and make sure your knee does not move forward infront of your toes.
  • Superman: Lie on your front, and lift up your legs and arms as far off the ground as possible. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat 5 times.
  • Glute bridge: Lie down on your back, with your knees bent, as if you’re about to do a sit-up. Lift up your right leg and bend your knee fully, and lift up your pelvis so that your back and left thigh form a straight line (see images below for proper technique). Repeat 3×10 times on each leg.

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Manon's an experienced ultra runner, who has completed the Ultra Trail Cape Town 100km, ran the Belgian coast from France to Holland and competed in the Ironman 70.3 World Champs. Now, she enjoys adventuring in her own backyard and using her weekend's for running and cycling adventures with friends.

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