By Sean Meissner
Some people can run ultramarathons for years, even decades, and never get a serious injury. Others are very injury-prone, forced into taking extended breaks often. Surely, some runner’s bodies are better suited to the demands of running far than others, but there’s got to be more to it.
About a decade ago, a friend of mine, Tony Covarrubias, noted that I fall into the category of someone who runs and races a lot, yet, I rarely get injured, and never a serious injury. As of the end of 2017, I’ve been running ultramarathons for 16.5 years and have a total of 172 finishes (plus 81 marathon finishes). The longest I’ve taken off for injury was in the summer of 2006, after an ill-advised three straight weekends of ultramarathon racing. After the third, I had definitely pulled a muscle in my calf; I took two weeks completely off from running and recovered nicely to run a 100K one week later.
Thinking back to those three weekends, that injury, Tony’s question, and why I don’t suffer from serious running injuries, I believe that a lot of my running health has to do with two main things: taking regular running breaks and varying my running.
As a coach, I strongly encourage my clients to do the same. After every goal race, I have them take off an unspecified amount of time from running. Rather than subscribing to some pre-determined, one-size-doesn’t-fit-all amount of time to take off, I let their bodies decide how much time it needs. It’s always at least one week of no running, usually two, sometimes a month. When they do start up again, I’ll let their body slowly ease back into the grind of daily training. This is a point where it’s very important to have good communication between a coach and runner, so as not to do too much, too soon.
In addition to time off after a goal race, it’s also important to take time off when your body tells you it needs to. If you’re feeling unusually tired, you often have an elevated resting or exercising heart rate, and/or the thought of running sounds more like a chore than a fun activity, it’s a good idea to stop running for a while. This can come during times of peak training for goal races, so it is not ideal, but important to listen and do what your body asks. Doing so not only can help keep your body from developing potential over-use injuries, but also from burnout and fatigue. In these situations, I often have clients take extended breaks from running, as well as from coaching so they don’t feel like Coach is “watching them.”
The other big thing I incorporate into my clients’ schedules is to vary their running. Regardless of what you are training for, I’m a firm believer that this can help keep you running longer with a lower chance of overuse injuries. Varying your running has many different meanings: short, long, slow, fast, easy, moderate, hard, up, down, flat, rolling, hilly, smooth, technical, trail, road, track, grass, etc. It also includes rotating shoes on a regular basis (stability level, flexibility, stack height, brand, etc.). Each shoe is going to hold your foot a bit different, forcing all of the muscles in your feet and lower legs to work a little differently, thus, strengthening them in different ways based on the shoe.
While listening to your body, taking advice from your coach and switching up your shoes can help reduce the likelihood of injury and increase longevity, there are also runners who will tell you that a strong support system keeps them going strong. Dan Harshburger has been running ultramarathons since 1984 and has 199 finishes to his credit. When asked what has kept him on the trails mile after mile, he didn’t reveal a secret diet or strength training program, but answered that it was his wife and running partner, Kathy. Finding a life partner to run with can be incredibly motivating and help keep you emotionally healthy and happy. Dan reflected on how his wife has been pushing him out the door and down the trail for decades sharing many great nights together traversing rocky trails to the next 100-mile finish. In Dan’s words, “My greatest accomplishment in running was picking the right partner in life.”
Ultimately, ultrarunning longevity comes from finding out what works best for you to be motivated to enjoy it for the long haul. Ask others for advice, but try things out for yourself, as we are all each an experiment of one.
Sean Meissner has been coaching runners since 2002, starting as a volunteer assistant high school cross country coach, and slowly transitioned into coaching runners of all ages, abilities, distances and terrain. He is the founder and race director for the Peterson Ridge Rumble trail race, has over 250 marathon and ultra finishes, and has run for Montrail since 2003. Sean currently coaches through Sharman Ultra, and works and plays, mostly with his dogs, in the mountains surrounding Durango, CO.