Training for talented but injury-prone distance runners

Are you looking for a shortcut? Are you not very talented? Maybe you should read this article instead! Five steps to success at high school distance running
Writing the perfect training plan is easy.  There are plenty of philosophical debates on the internet about the finer points of workouts, paces, etc., but most coaches can come to some agreement on what works—on paper, at least.  The problems arise when you try to take these perfect training plans and start using them in the real world.
Will most 5k and 10k runners improve if they could run 100 miles a week with a 20mi long run, a 10mi tempo run, and a long interval session every week? Sure.  But the problem is that most can't do this without getting hurt.  Too many runners get caught up trying to emulate a perfect training plan, then get frustrated when it doesn't work out.  If you've been in the sport long enough, you've probably known several talented runners who keep banging their heads against the wall, trying the same training plans over and over, hoping that if they can just stay healthy for once, they'll get really fast.  Strictly speaking, this is true: if you're really talented, and if you get a long block of great, uninterrupted training in, you're going to get very fit.  It's that second "if" that's usually the problem.

Especially if you are a naturally talented runner—and by this I mean that your baseline ability to cover long distances at great speeds is strong, i.e. your natural aerobic fitness is good—nothing matters if you can't stay healthy.  If you or a runner you coach is very talented but also very injury-prone, what is the right way to approach training?
Training for the injury-prone talent
The first thing you need to do is forget everything you've learned about normal training.  Pretty much any book on training for distance runners (including mine) will lecture you about the importance of a big aerobic base, usually built from high mileage and prodigious high-end aerobic workouts.  Again, if you're a very talented runner, you benefit a lot from this, but if you can't run 40 miles a week without staying healthy, forget 80 miles a week for now.
I recall advising a DI runner who had suffered ten stress fractures in five years of running.  Despite this, he'd managed to run 2:25 in the 1000m and under 8:30 in the 3k.  Though his mileage was, overall, fairly low—50-70 miles a week—he nevertheless suffered constant bone stress injuries.  If you were his coach, wouldn't it make sense to try something different after stress fracture #3 or 4?  On paper, yes, 50 miles a week isn't enough to run a great 3k or 5k.  But no matter how much you run, you'll never race well if you are injured.  Is there another way?
A better approach is to return to a first-principles approach to understand what you need to run fast.  In a standard training methodology, a large volume of easy to moderate running allows you to do faster high-end aerobic workouts, which in turn enable you to run race-specific workouts and the race itself.  Renato Canova illustrates thissimply and beautifully:
If I use fast intervals, I train for improving my race performance
If I use long fast run, I train for becoming stronger in my specific training
If I use long run at moderate speed, I train for increasing the base that makes me able to run long and fast
For a very talented but injury-prone runner, you can significantly cut injury risk by using talent as your base—instead of running high mileage and a lot of aerobic workouts, you can very low mileage and only sparingly (but not never!) go for aerobic workouts, relying instead on your high natural aerobic level to enable your race-specific work.  You can supplement this by doing easy to moderate cross training workouts, e.g. on the bike or in the pool, to improve your basic aerobic abilities.  All distance runners need to be able to run continuously for a long time, but the talented-but-fragile runner don't need to actually do it on a regular basis.
Let's look at a concrete example.  A standard sub-16 high school cross country runner's schedule during the early pre-season might look like this:

F          10mi easy to moderate (7:15 to 6:20/mi) + hill sprints
S          15mi easy
S          5mi easy
M         3mi easy  /  10x600m at 16:00→15:30 5k pace, 90sec recovery
T          9mi easy + strides
W        4mi easy  /  10mi moderate (6:40-6:10/mi)
T          8x1000m at threshold, 200 jog recovery
F          4mi easy  /  10mi easy  + hill sprints
S          13mi with last 4mi progressive (6:00→5:30/mi)
S          5mi easy
M         5mi easy + 20min fast tempo (5:30→5:20/mi)
This averages out to around 10mi/day, or 70 miles a week.
Here's how a talented but chronically injured runner with the same fitness (~16:00 cross country 5k) but more raw talent (read: higher natural aerobic fitness level without training) might adapt this same schedule:
F          8-10mi easy to moderate (7:15 to 6:20/mi)
S          90min aquajog or bike
S          Off
M         10x600m at 16:00→15:30 5k pace, 90sec recovery
T          3-5mi easy + aquajog or bike
W        20min easy + strides
T          3x2000m at threshold→10k pace, 2min walk recovery
F          60min aquajog or bike
S          1mi easy + 6-8mi fast (6:00→5:45/mi)
S          Off
M         1-2mi easy, hillsprints, 1-2mi easy, aquajog or bike
Note that cross-training can be added on as a double on most days
Despite this 11-day stretch containing an 8-10mi long run, 6k of work at 5k pace, 6k of work at threshold to 10k pace, its overall volume is very low (averaging less than 30 miles per week). 
A few things are worth pointing out.  First, the race-specific workout (10x600m) is exactly the same. This is because, no matter who you are, the demands of the race are the same.  If you want to run 15:50 for 5k, you must run 5km at 5:06 mile pace, whether you run 20 miles a week or 80 miles a week.
The intensity of the aerobic workouts is also higher: instead of a 15mi easy long run, the fragile/talented runner can replace it with 8-10 miles at a moderate pace.  Instead of a 13mi run with a progressive finish, you can use a more potent stimulus in the form of 6-8mi fast.  Instead of 8k of threshold pace, the workout volume is cut to 6k, but the intensity is increased: 2km instead of 1km repeats, and cutting the pace down to 10k pace at the end.
Additionally, there is more time between workouts.  This runner skips the 20min fast tempo on Monday because he likely needs more time to recover after his Saturday session.  Two or even three easy / cross-training days after long, fast running should be the norm when you push the boundaries like this.
Finally, there are a few tricks you can employ to trim volume more aggressively.  Keep warmup and cooldown jogs to 10min or less, and mandate rest during workouts be walked instead of jogged.  For high schoolers, there usually are benefits associated with these, but they are small enough to be discarded if staying healthy is a priority.
To be clear, I do not recommend this kind of schedule unless you are injury-prone to the extent that you are unable to run 50-60 miles a week without becoming injured, have exhausted all reasonable attempts to become able to run normal volumes injury-free, and have a lot of natural distance running ability.  Without raw talent, this kind of training schedule just isn't possible to get through.  Even if you adjust for relative paces, a runner with low natural aerobic fitness has no prayer of completing 8mi at 85% of 5k pace or 3x2k at threshold to 10k pace successfully, much less benefiting from it.  This is the reason most people need high mileage in the first place!  If, like me, you only run 20min for 5k as a high school freshman, there is only one path to becoming a good runner: high mileage and high end aerobic work.
The role of cross-training and ancillary work
You might be wondering, "If I follow this schedule, how much aqua-jogging or biking do I need to do?" The short answer is: "Enough to allow you to run 10mi at an easy to moderate effort, do 6k of interval work, and run 6-8mi fast."  Exactly what that constitutes will vary from person to person, and will depend on just how high your natural aerobic level really is.  Generally, to run 60-70 min easy and 40-50min fast, you need to be running 60-80min easy on a daily basis, so shooting for this total duration of exercise (run + any cross training) is a good place to start.
The talented/fragile runner can focus more intently on lifting and general strength circuits, too, since these don't tend to provoke running injuries.  Plyometrics, with their high impacts, are riskier—better to avoid them, at least initially.
The demands of your event of choice dictate, to a large extent, your training volume.  It's very easy to succeed at the 800m off very low mileage, whereas it's nearly impossible to do so in the marathon.  This strategy of using talent as your base, supplemented by some low-impact cross training, has its limitations.  You probably can't run well at anything significantly further than a 10k, since the half and full marathon distances absolutely require the ability to do very long runs and a lot of quality.  It may be possible to run a decent marathon off fairly low-volume training, but I believe that requires a different approach—one which I'll detail in a future article.
You also shouldn't use this article as an excuse to not get to the bottom of your injury problems.  Often, there are good reasons you are suffering stress fractures, tendon problems, or other issues.  If you can address these, you may find that you're able to run high mileage just fine.  My injury series articles are a great place to start if you've had chronic running injury troubles.
Real coaching—the challenging part of the job—is adapting the principles of training to the specific needs of the individual.  In the case of rare talents who are injury-prone, this challenge is particularly tricky, but also very rewarding when you get it right. How often do you hear about a top high school or college runner who succeeds on what appears to be a paltry, low-volume training approach? Perhaps, instead of brushing their success off as all talent and no training, it's better to try to learn something from these examples. 
Remember, the key to success is to become able to run long distances at great speeds without becoming fatigued.  The trick is how to go about doing that.  For the vast majority of runners, the best path is several years of development which a good deal of high mileage and regular high-end aerobic running.  If you or a runner you coach is tremendously talented but also very injury-prone, there may be another way: leveraging that talent to move directly to long, fast running and race-specific workouts.

About the Author

John J Davis, PhD

I have been coaching runners and writing about training and injuries for over ten years. I've helped total novices, NXN-qualifying high schoolers, elite-field competitors at major marathons, and runners everywhere in between. I have a Ph.D. in Human Performance, and I do scientific research focused on the biomechanics of overuse injuries in runners. I published my first book, Modern Training and Physiology for Middle and Long-Distance Runners, in 2013.

8 thoughts on “Training for talented but injury-prone distance runners”

  1. Hi John

    Somewhat off topic, but what is your opinion on running form?
    In my country it's these days very big focus on running form and it has become big business. I have to say that I am sceptical to all this focus on running form. First: The main reason the general population is not in a great running shape is not because of faulty running form, but because the maybe only run 1-2 times per week. Biggest improvement in shape comes from increasing the training frequency to 4-5 times per week rather than change minor details of the persons running form. Also I am in the opinion that more running for the general population will improve the running form automatically to be more efficient as the body will adapt become more efficient. Another thing I wonder is will you become faster on different running distances by trying to alter your running form? Another question is it it really possible to alter the running form long term after some instructions from a coach, that results in big improvemt in running perfomance?
    I have not read any research that says that focus on running tecnique will actually improve the performance on running distances. I would really like to hear your opinion on this topic, and if backed up by research I am willing to change my mind. But so far my opinion is focus our energy on correct training and recovery and spend less time obsessing about running form.

  2. From the perspective of the scientific research out there, you're right—most research indicates that, in the short term at least, pretty much any change to an individual's running form results in a less efficient running stride. What's unclear is whether your body ever "adapts" to its new running form and returns to its old level of efficiency, or even surpasses it.

    You are correct about the body becoming more efficient too. As you train more, your body refines its mechanics to become more energetically efficient. What is unclear about THIS is whether there are certain form changes that won't happen naturally. Some people suspect that some changes in form that could be beneficial won't ever be realized by themselves (i.e. just by your body naturally adapting to more running volume). Another problem is that this creates something of a catch-22: in order to acquire good running form that keeps you injury-free, you already need to be able to run a lot!

    Running form for INJURY PREVENTION is a different matter. There are a few specific aspects of running form that are known to be associated with injury (footstrike, notably is NOT one of them...). The two big ones are stride frequency and hip strength / coordination. Stride frequency is a great example because it appears that the human body chooses a stride frequency to optimize energy efficiency, NOT to reduce stress on the body. If someone has a low stride frequency, and you increase it by 5 or 10%, you see a drop in impact and active force stresses in the legs, but also a slight drop in efficiency. Again, it's unclear whether your body adapts to a higher stride frequency and becomes equally efficient again. My instincts tell me yes, but there's no evidence on that.

    I fully agree with your last point. Whatever your opinions on running form, the MOST important thing is correct training and recovery! Without this, you'll never be able to stay healthy or be able to run fast.

    Thanks for the comment. I'll have to write up a full article on running form soon!

  3. Thanks for your reply. I work as a personal trainer at the moment and many comes to me and are very worried that their running technique is the reason why they run slow. I look at them and I can't see anything strange with their running technique. After doing some work on the treadmill and talking with them I discover that they are just basically out of shape and jog 1-2 times per week maximum. PT is about selling, but I honestly can't say that it's their technique that is the problem and sell them PT session to improve their running technique. I say to them that the reason you are not in your greatest shape is because you are not training enough or intense enough, not because your technique is not optimal. So I think the focus is completely wrong when people running 1-2 times per week spend a lot of time, effort and money to "improve" their running technique to run faster, when the best thing they could do would be to put the shoes on and go for a 30 min fast run. Things have become too advanced IMO. Many personal trainers disagree with me and that makes me also kind of frustrated. Their statement is often "running technique is so important and is the key to good running performance". Yes maybe, but as you said the research on the effect of trying to actively alter the running technique is limited. But we can maybe agree that the elite runners all have a efficient running technique, but then how did they get that? 1. By good genetics? 2. By huge amount of running from a young age? (kenyans), or 3. by focusing and spending time actively trying to alter their technique to be the most efficient? My guess is number 1 and/or 2.

  4. Yep, totally agree. From a performance standpoint, training is definitely the most important thing! If you want to run fast in the need to run fast (and far) in training.

  5. I find the common theory that to run 5k races well you need to run excessive mileage (over 100 miles) if you think about it that means you are running 4 marathons per week. Of course you are going to get injured. If a 5k runner is expected to run over 100 miles per week what is a marathon runner expected to run?

    I like Jack Daniel's theory that you should run the least possible to achieve the desired result.

    Are your results truly better if you run 100 miles per week verses 50 miles per week? My opinion is they generally are not yet your probably of injury increases in huge multiples if you run excessive mileage.

  6. Speaking for myself, my own 5k results *were* truly better at 100 (indeed, better still at 120-130) miles per week than at 50, to the tune of about a minute and a half over 5km. You are correct that the risk of injury is definitely higher, though, and I certainly suffered my fair share of those.

  7. Hi John, nice article. I'm a frustrated injury prone runner who enjoys the marathon, but a series of stress fractures is forcing me to reconsider my training focus, although I really love marathon running and am loathe to give it up if I could find a away to seriously reduce injury risk. Did you write the article about how to get fit for a marathon on low volume training? Thanks for all the great posts on this blog!

  8. So I'm actually working on a book that is, in part, about that topic! It's a long ways off from publishing, but I DO think there is a way to run well in the marathon off quite low mileage. It involves low overall mileage and one longer marathon-specific workout per week, with one secondary workout. Several days off or very short and easy are necessary to recover from the long marathon workouts. You have to build up fitness more slowly without the mileage to support your workouts, but I have seen it done successfully in athletes that I work with.


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