Doc Talk: Variety is the Spice of Life

by Anna Komer, DPT

When a running athlete is told that they need to diversify their routine, they often associate this with adding more cross training or different aerobic activities (cycling, swimming, elliptical, etc.). Although these are all great supplements to an athlete’s routine, a runner with a high mileage goal often does not have a lot of time to integrate “versatility of sport” into their routine. So, how else does one create variety while also trying to build volume when pushing towards a race?

Different types of runs! Running is a fantastic activity, but can be very repetitive, especially if done on the same trails, roads, or at the same speed. Below are ways to change up your weekly routine to get out of that running rut and decrease injury risk:

Intensity. Most of our runs need to be easy and at a very conversational pace. By keeping your runs easy, you minimize the amount of stress on your body, which aids in recovery and still facilitates growth of your fitness level. The remainder of your runs should be variable. Adding in small percentages of speed work is incredibly valuable to engage your muscles in different ways. The speed work can include a range of interval speed work, tempo runs for sustained 20-30 minutes, or fartlek/play type of runs. Bear in mind, this is specific to your goals and has to be graded in it’s integration into your routine. Avoid spending your runs at the “middle ground” level, which is that brisk “run out the door” pace that we often incorporate in our mid week runs.

Terrain. Specificity of terrain is always key when racing, but it’s beneficial to still mix in different surfaces. This can include a mix of road, track, trail or if all on trail (rocky, sandy, smooth). Training on different surfaces trains your neuromuscular system (brain to muscle connections) to be more reactive and adaptable when challenging your body. It also simply changes the way that your foot and lower limbs interact with the ground. For example, if you run on a rocky trail every day, your forefoot may begin to undergo a lot of stress from the direct contact of the firm surface and predispose you to things such as metatarsalgia or morton’s neuroma. The same goes for constant runs on sandy surfaces that cause your foot to wiggle more side to side that when performed repetitively increase the risk of foot and ankle tendinopathy.

Different Shoes. Wearing more than two shoes in your training cycle reduces your risk of injury by 39%. That’s a pretty staggering statistic that encourages you to mix it up! Current research suggests that there is no “perfect shoe” and selection is best based on what feels most natural. Thus, find a few pairs of shoes that feel comfortable, make sure they vary in their weight, heel-toe drops, and cushioning, and mix them in your training cycle.

Varied goals. Whatever distance you have in mind, accomplish them, and then mix it up! Changing between half marathons, 25k, 50k, 100k, etc. is really beneficial as it changes your speed and volume in training cycles, which again mitigates repetitive stress. You can also hold the distance constant with different goals related to the race including focusing on the hills, focusing on speed, or focusing on technical terrain.

In a nutshell, do not get in a training rut of doing the same thing everyday. 60-70% of running injuries occur from training errors, not from weakness or running form issues. Since 90% of distance runners (marathon and above) become injured each year, this is a critical thing that you have control of when planning your activities. Change your route, change your days of the week that you’re running, and play with your intensity. Have fun with it and embrace the creativity!

Anna Komer