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Injury prevention tips for trail runners

March 19, 2018

Found in Activities, Skills and tips

I’ve been a runner for almost 18 years. Starting from scratch, I’ve worked my way up to running with the Canadian trail running team for world events and with the elite field on the Salomon team. I didn’t have any personal coaching along the way, which means I’ve experienced many injuries caused by the usual suspects – too much, too fast, too soon – and have learned a lot in the process.

Since becoming a podiatrist about 9 years ago, I now have a feel for running injuries and understand ways you can help prevent them. Here are few of my favourite tips to prevent injuries and create healthy running habits year round, along with a few things to watch for:

1. Sleep well and eat well

Runner lacing up shoes next to bed

Research clearly states that recovery happens when you rest after periods of training. To fully recover from training or intense sessions, you must integrate rest periods into your training plan. Your body will benefit from it.

Apply the same care to your eating habits. In training, we work our bodies hard and we need to feed our engine good fuel! No matter what you eat – whether you’re vegan, gluten-free, or none of the above – real, whole foods are always beneficial. Healthy food replenishes the vitamins and essential building blocks you need for muscle recovery.

2. Pay attention to work and stress

We’re all humans and stress is part of life. That said, I believe that when you’re feeling stressed or fatigued, you should modify your training plan to lower the cortisol or stress effects on your already stressed body.

It’s still important to get out, but think about changing the duration or intensity of your run. Focus on getting fresh air, fully breathing oxygen into your lungs, and having fun. It’s sometimes easy to get into a routine of exercising to feel better, since it gives you a stress relief mechanism. But in the long run, your body may also become fatigued and have a harder time fully recovering. Chronic fatigue is important to avoid, as it can result in injuries and poor athletic outcomes.

3. Follow a training plan that suits you

Everyone’s different, and that’s part of the beauty of the trail running community. Find a way to train that works for you – that means you may not always train from the same book or schedule as the runner next door. Most of all, your training plan should be easy to follow and fun to do, so it keeps you doing what you love.

4. Cross-training? Oh yeah!

MEC Ambassador Annie Jean riding her bike

I’m a strong proponent of cross-training. Along with running, I love to spend hours on my bike, whether that means commuting, training or just going for a ride. Cycling is beneficial since it helps build leg muscle strength that’s necessary to better absorb the impact of running. Swimming is another beautiful cross-training option that offers flexibility and core stability.

In winter, I tend to put the bike away and get my skis ready for cross-country skiing. It’s a full-body workout that you can easily mix up with interval sessions. There’s also snowshoe running – try find trails you can run on with micro-spikes if it’s icy, or use running snowshoes. Fat biking is also a fun way to keep cycling in the snow.

5. Never underestimate strength training

Strength training is important to keep your core, back, hips and overall agility in top shape for race season (I’ve learned this the hard way). As runners, we often overlook the importance of specific core training since we tend to focus our attention on running – it’s what we do best! But the constant linear pattern of running, and even cycling, can predispose you to weaker hip flexibility over time.

Yoga for runners can be a good addition to running since it focuses on strength and mobility through specific running patterns. Never underestimate the importance of core stability; having a strong core can prevent many lower back issues for long distance runners.

Looking for ideas? Check out some effective strength exercises for runners.

6. The power of rest

As you probably know, planning your race calendar is pretty exciting. Sometimes runners go overboard with the number of races they want to sign up for. If you don’t have a coach to rein you in (and the majority of us don’t), you can end up with a crazy to-do list of events, which can be exciting but at the same time exasperating.

The human body is a strong partner, but it still needs good rest between hard racing – even more rest than you give yourself between workouts – so your body and mind can recover to keep you doing what you love.

Injuries: what to watch for

MEC Ambassador Annie Jean treating another runner's foot injury

When I started trail running, I got a better sense of the demands on your body from running on mountainous terrain compared to running on roads. Trail running requires foot dexterity, ankle stability, hip flexibility, core strength and coordination. Running downhill offers quadriceps power, while running uphill works on hamstring strength, upright posture and high cadence. I feel road running is also beneficial for trail running, since it gives you a chance to work on speed on gradual climbs or when you are on less technical terrain. Practicing on trails and roads gives you the best of both worlds.

As a podiatrist and runner, I come across many running injuries that could be prevented by proper shoe wear, proper running gait, and strength and flexibility training. I see a clear and different pattern between trail running and road running injuries:

  • Most of the time, road runners come to see me with symptoms of plantar fasciitis, medial tibial shin splints, iliotibial band syndrome (ITBS), and other symptoms that can be explained by chronic overuse (sometimes due to poor biomechanics, shoe choice or training log).
  • In trail runners, most of injuries I see are caused by trauma: ankle inversion sprains, sometimes fractures, cuboid syndrome from forced eversion motion caused by running over rocks or roots, and of course, the famous blue-toe syndrome, involving subungual hematomas under toenails from chronic micro-traumas.

Whether you’re on the road or the trails, pay attention to post static dyskinesia symptoms (stiffness after periods of rest), which can be an indicative of ongoing inflammation processes. If you start to feel pain or limited joint movement, it’s time to see your health professional for an assessment and treatment plan for recovery.

Happy trails, and stay healthy so you can enjoy doing the things you love.

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