By Greg McMillan
You've been taught to "listen to your body" to avoid overtraining. This listening, however pertains only to the cardiorespiratory system. You can feel your breathing and know when it changes. you can even feel the metabolic system when you do hard repetitions on the track. you can feel the lactic acid locking up your stride.
What you can't feel, however, is the stress on the musculoskeletal system while training. The muscles never say, "Hey, I'm about to tear!" Instead, the say after the fact, "Hey, I'm torn." The bones don't say, "Excuse me, but the stress load along the shin bone is beginning to tear the muscle away from the bone and cause me to micro-fracture." And the plantar fascia never says, "if you don't stop pounding me, I'm going to start telling you with the feeling of a steel spike to the heel on your first step every morning!"
The musculoskeletal system is too nice. It doesn't want to interrupt your enjoyment of the run. It waits for several weeks, when you're in GREAT SHAPE and ready to tear it up; then it speaks up. But by that time, you're so far into the injury that you're in for a long down time.
Training at the Musculoskeletal Level
Instead of listening to the cardiovascular system, we need to program our training with our musculoskeletal system as the gauge. As mentioned, the can't be done by listening to your body. The musculoskeletal system is simply too shy to speak up. So, we need to plan the training with the musculoskeletal system as our limiting factor.
While the musculoskeletal system may be shy, it's extraordinarily plastic, meaning that i can adapt. If you stress a bone, for example, it becomes stronger. That's why weight-bearing exercise is so important for bone health. The muscles react in the same way. You stress them and they adapt to better tolerate that stress. And I don't mean just in the pumping-iron-stress kind of way.
Use the musculoskeletal system guide below to guide your training. The younger you are (especially high school runners) and the more injury-prone you are, the more frequently you need to plan recovery days and weeks. If you were blessed with great biomechanics and a highly adaptable musculoskeletal system, then the less frequently you'll need to take rest days and weeks.
I've created this simple scoring system to help you help your musculoskeletal system. Use it and you'll avoid injury and see your fitness build from month to month, year to year. Rescore yourself every training cycle, as your body should be more injury-resistant as your mature as a runner.
IF you're a new or young runner, are injured once every three months or have dealt with a chronic injury for more than a year, score yourself with a 1.
IF you're a newer or younger runner who has "niggly" injuries that pop up every three to six months, or you're determined to avoid injury by preemptively resting your musculoskeletal system, score yourself with a 2.
IF you're an experienced runner who rarely gets injured but does have a lot of life stress and notices that every now and then a common injury pops up, give yourself a 3.
IF you're a seasoned runner who has never been injured, give yourself a 4. (Lucky you!)
How to use the Musculoskeletal Guide
Your score indicates the number of weeks between recovery weeks. For example, if you scored a "2," then you can train at your 100 percent volume and intensity level for two weeks, and then should plan the next week as a recovery week. If you scored a "3" then you'll train normally for three weeks, and then take a recovery week in the fourth week. The key is to plan for this recovery instead of waiting for an injury to force you to take a recovery week. I recommend reducing mileage by 10 to 20 percent on the recovery weeks, as well as taking an extra day off or easy day, depending on your running frequency. Maybe do one less hard workout during that week or back off on the stress of that workout if you maintain all your hard workouts in your recovery week.
Once you get your score, stick with it for the full training cycle no matter how you're feeling. After all, avoiding interruptions in training is MORE important than doing the greatest training of your life only to be stuck on the sidelines on race day. The greatest challenge is to rest when you're fittest. But it's precisely in this peak performance zone when you're most susceptible to overstressing the musculoskeletal system.