A Runner's Guide to Risk Management

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, by Matt Fitzgerald

Photography by: Jacob Lund

All sports carry risk in one form or another. For runners, the biggest risks are getting injured, overreaching, and bonking. I know only one way to reduce these risks to zero: to stop running. A runner simply cannot pursue the goals of maximizing fitness in training and attaining peak performance on race day without accepting some risk of getting hurt, burning out physically, and hitting the wall.

Nevertheless, there’s a lot you can do to contain these risks without lowering your standards for fitness and performance. Here are my top tips for balancing risk and reward in running.

Injury

We tend to think of running as the cause of injuries such as plantar fasciitis and shin splints. But if this is true, then weekly running mileage should be positively correlated with injury rate, and the opposite is true. High-mileage runners actually get injured less often than low-mileage runners. Why?

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The answer is consistency. Studies show that injury risk rises when runners make big jumps in either the volume or the intensity of their training. And guess who is least likely to make such leaps: runners who consistently run a lot!

Photography by: Jose Luis Carrascosa

Strength training, wearing proper footwear, and keeping on top of recovery will also help you avoid breaking down, but the biggest impact comes from gradually building up your running mileage to a high but manageable level and then keeping it there.

Overreaching

According to a 2012 scientific paper by Jeffrey Kreher, MD, and Jennifer Schwartz, MD, “Overreaching is considered an accumulation of training load that leads to performance decrements requiring days to weeks for recovery.” In plain English, overreaching is what happens when you train too much to actually benefit from the work you’re doing.

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For highly motivated athletes who want to get as fit as possible for races, overreaching is easy to do. But avoiding it is also easy if you listen to your body. Research has shown that athletes’ subjective perceptions of training stress and fatigue are the most reliable predictors of overreaching—more reliable even than objective metrics like heart rate variability. The key to avoiding overreaching is understanding how you should feel during periods of intensive training and dialing back when the load feels too hard.

Ask yourself, “How accurate is the phrase ‘challenging but manageable’ in describing my current training experience?” The answer you want is “very accurate,” or at least “accurate.”

In my coaching work, I rely on a simple heuristic to keep my athletes on the safe side of overreaching. Ask yourself, “How accurate is the phrase ‘challenging but manageable’ in describing my current training experience?” The answer you want is “very accurate,” or at least “accurate.” When you get to a point where your training load feels unmanageable, or you’re not sure if you can manage it, it’s time to dial back.

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Bonking

The goal in racing is to reach the finish line in the least time possible. To achieve this goal, you need to be aggressive enough that you don’t reach the finish line with fuel left in the tank. But if you’re too aggressive, you’ll empty your tank early and bonk.

How do you find this balance? The key here is having a good feel for your limits, and a good way to develop this feel is to race frequently at shorter distances. Why? Because in races you test your limits more than you can (or should) in training, and shorter races can be done fairly often without disrupting the training process. Plus, the consequences of bonking in a 5K are less severe than those of bonking in a marathon.

Your training load should be challenging but manageable. Photography by: PeopleImages.com - Yuri A

Finding the Edge

By the way, bonking is not the end of the world. Nor is injury or overreaching. All runners want to avoid these things, but how do you really know where the edge is if you don’t cross it once in a while? I’m not suggesting that you go out and intentionally get hurt or overreach or hit the wall. Just don’t be so fearful of these risks that you leave a good part of your potential untapped in training or on the race course.

DID YOU READ? Think You Might Be Injured? What To Do Now

Former 2:12 marathoner Jason Lehmkuhle said it well: “I think that you just have to accept that you are probably going to get injured every once in a while. It’s part of the sport. The way that you deal with the injury is probably more important than trying to do everything to prevent injuries.” If you get injured in training and learn from the experience, you’ll be better able to get right up to the edge of injury without crossing it in your future training. Same thing with overreaching. And if you bonk in a race and learn from that, you’ll be better able to go right up to the edge of bonking without crossing it in future races.

Be as bold as you are smart and as smart as you are bold and you will reach your full potential as a runner without undue risk.