Running injury and performance specialist Matt Phillips looks at how to change training habits to progress and stay injury free.

Achieving a new PB can bring an emotional high like no other but chasing it too enthusiastically can all too often open the door to injury. Training habits is where runners should focus attention, especially when preparing for a race.

Approximately 60–70 per cent of all running injuries are thought to be caused by too sudden a change in distance, intensity or frequency. In other words, the best way to stay injury free is have a plan and stick to it. Sounds simple, but is it?

Which plan works for me?

A quick search on Google brings up a multitude of training plans for all race distances, levels of experience, duration, and more. Having so many plans to choose from can be a little daunting, and choosing a training plan that works for you typically involves consideration of three important variables:

1. FREQUENCY: How many days a week should I run?
A training plan needs to suit your life and be realistic in expectation. For most recreational runners, three days a week is recommended as it provides enough training stimulus for development without significantly raising risk of injury. If you know three days a week isn’t possible, devise a training plan based on two days a week.

If you are a more experienced runner and able to train four of five days a week, make a plan for that. What you do not want, is to expose your body to irregular training. Remember, inappropriate training is the number one cause of injury.   

2. PACE: How fast should I run?
Many runners only know how to run at one speed, or in other words pace (speed per mile/km). Race preparation however, is not just about trying to run faster every session. Between 50 to 70 percent of a good training plan will normally involve you running slower than your race pace; 10-20 percent of the sessions will have you running faster than race pace. Distance running is all about preparing yourself to be able to maintain a certain pace for longer, something we achieve by running different sessions at different paces.

3. INTENSITY: How hard should I be training?
Pace is obviously one determining factor in how intense a training session is, but so is the steepness or duration of a hill, the number of intervals you do in a rep session or the length of rest time you have between intervals.

In distance running, following the ‘80/20 rule’ is a useful one to maximise development whilst minimising the risk of injury. If we score the intensity of a training session out of 10, where 10 is you making a maximum effort (e.g. during a sprint or 10 second hill rep), 80 percent of your training sessions should be below 4/10. This comes as a surprise to many runners preparing for a distance race, especially if they are used to running shorter distances.

Take a flexible approach

Listening to your body is key to knowing when to modify a particular session.

This can mean replacing a planned session of steep hill sprints with an easy run if you suddenly find yourself with unexpected muscle/joint pain, or unfamiliar levels of fatigue. Bear in mind the old saying; “The shortest distance to your destination is a straight line, but the fastest way to get there will involve many zigzags.”

Get a personalised plan

You may benefit from seeking the services of a running specialist who will be able to create a personalised plan and at the same time take into account your running experience, current levels of fitness and history of injury. This may not be as expensive as you think. You are not going to need them to be at every single training session you do (unless you want them to be!) They will simply put you on the right track and be there if you have questions.