You know a Spartan Race is going to hurt—in the best way possible. But training for one shouldn’t put you in constant pain. Nor should it cause injuries that force you to stop training altogether.
Which brings us to running. For all the obstacles you’ll encounter, “You have to remember that it’s a running race, particularly as the distance increases,” says exercise physiologist Glenn Phipps, owner of Movement Lab in New South Wales, Australia, who’s worked with a long list of obstacle course racing (OCR) athletes, including 2014 Spartan world champ Jon Albon.
How you build that endurance can make or break your training program. A recent review study found that male runners are especially vulnerable to injury when they’re just starting out or restarting, while age and running on concrete are bigger risk factors for women. Previous injuries predispose both genders to future ones.
Here are some simple ways to limit risk and save your suffering for the actual event.
For Every Two Steps Forward, Take One Step Back
The easiest way to avoid injuries is to manage the volume of your training. “Lots of people have aches and pains when running, especially when they’re new to it,” says Jason Karp, Ph.D., author of eight books, including the just-released Run Your Fat Off. Most of the time, he says, it’s because they ramp up the mileage before their bodies are ready for it.
This is especially perilous for runners who’re coming back after a long layoff. Their cardiovascular system will quickly bounce back. Same with their muscles, after a brief period of soreness. But the tendons and ligaments, which have a smaller blood supply, will lag behind. Bones take even longer to adapt to the repetitive impact of running.
Karp recommends giving your body as much time as it needs to adjust to your workload before you increase it. “For example, run 20 miles for enough weeks until your legs think 20 miles per week is normal,” he says. “Then and only then add one mile to each day of running.”
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Lift Weight Instead of Just Feet
Strength training can help the process along. Physical therapist Mike Stare, DPT, owner of Spectrum Fitness Consulting in Beverly, Massachusetts, recommends two to three total-body strength workouts a week.
First and foremost, he says, focused strength training can prevent injuries by shoring up your bones and connective tissues, giving them a higher strain tolerance. It also corrects muscle imbalances, which can occur from front to back (stronger quadriceps, weaker glutes and hamstrings) or from side to side. For an example of the latter, an often-cited 2005 study found that injured runners were likely to have weaker outer-hip muscles and stronger inner-thigh muscles on the side with the injury.
The type of training Stare recommends isn’t especially trendy; you work your biggest muscles each time, mostly with exercises like squats, deadlifts, and lunges for the lower body and presses, push-ups, rows, and pull-ups or pulldowns for the upper body. The goal is to get progressively stronger by working with heavier loads.
In addition to being more resilient to injuries, a stronger body should also be faster, Stare says, generating more power with each stride. Another benefit to training for strength is an increase in lean tissue combined with a reduction in fat. That improvement in body composition, all else being equal, should boost performance because you’re literally hauling less ass around the obstacle course.
Buy the Right Four Running Shoes
Your improved strength won’t help much if you’re wearing the wrong shoes. “Research is showing us that we know way less about shoes than we thought,” Phipps says. His advice: “Avoid buying into fad-based shoe trends, and run in a shoe that feels comfortable when you put it on.”
For off-road running, he says, you want to find shoes that hold the heel in place, but allow you to spread your toes, giving you more control on uneven terrain. You may also want shoes with extra support on the outer edge, since ankle rolling is a genuine risk in OCR.
Phipps also recommends wearing different shoes on different days. The idea is supported by a 2015 study that found using more than one pair of running shoes reduces injuries by almost 40 percent. The practice, he says, “helps avoid repetitive loading patterns” to your lower body.
Embrace the Right Kind of Stress
Perhaps the best way to avoid injury is to avoid the conditions that are most likely to precede it. As Stare points out, running, like any type of exercise, is a stress you impose on your body. The goal of training is to impose stress in a systematic way, with each workout pushing you slightly beyond your current capacity. Then, while recovering from that workout, your body adapts to the stress, making you a little stronger, faster, and more tolerant of future challenges.
But it only works if your body is ready and willing to adapt to that stress. If you’ve missed sleep, or you’re dehydrated, or you aren’t eating enough to support your training, or you’re simply frazzled from long hours at work or personal problems at home, your body may not be able to handle the additional stress of training.
Then there’s the cumulative stress of training itself. Even with good sleep and plenty of food and fluid, an ambitious athlete can easily outrun his or her ability to recover from that running.
Sometimes the biggest step forward is when you listen to your body, and decide not to take any steps at all.