According to The Sports Injury Bulletin, 70-80 % of runners get injured every year. I used to be one of them.
When I started running in 2006, I needed to take a break after six months already. I developed a sharp pain in my knee that made even walking difficult. Because I was about to leave South Africa in a few days, I didn’t bother having it checked by a doc.
In the years that followed, I was experiencing niggles rather frequently, and I could never complete a full year of running without needing extended breaks due to injury. After a hiatus, I returned this year, raced already two ultra-marathons successfully, and haven’t been injured once.
What has changed? I will tell you in this article.
Before I tell you what those factors are, I need to state that I believe my body has become resilient due to all of these three things combined.
Too often, one intervention is touted as a “miracle cure” for running injuries. However, I believe more than one factor is responsible for our resilience and anti-fragility.
1. Eating Meat Again After 4 Years Veganism
My running journey coincided with my start of a vegan diet in 2006. Just a few months after I started to run, I went vegan.
I was an exchange student in South Africa and was deeply concerned about climate change and my ecological footprint. Blog posts told me that vegan eating would be the solution. Finally, the UN’s report “Livestock’s Long Shadow” convinced me that a plant-based diet would be the only solution if I wanted to align my actions with my values.
Reading about vegan athletes who praised the vegan diet as a performance booster gave me confidence in my decision. I read vegan classics, like “Becoming Vegan” and “The Starch Solution.” I watched youtube videos of vegan athletes and educated myself about eating for performance.
For a few years, I was a committed vegan, ignoring the signs that it was not a healthy diet for me:
- irritable bowel syndrome, which got worse with every passing year
- anxiety and irritable moods after a few years
- sleepiness in the late afternoons, despite sufficient sleep at night
- joint pain and frequent running injuries
As for critics who now may think: “well, she probably ate a vegan junk food diet” – far from it. 2006 veganism was still a fringe diet – especially in South Africa. Plus, I faithfully followed the recommendations of well-known vegan diet doctors because I wanted the best for the planet and my body.
I wanted to be a vegan role model for others, after all.
During my four years as a vegan, I was never able to run consistently. I would need to take breaks due to various niggles and injuries like ITB pain, meniscus pain, and severe knee pain and swelling, which one doctor diagnosed as osteoarthritis. He advised me to stop running because “some people are not meant to run.”
Interestingly, this knee pain and swelling completely subsided on an animal-based diet that I adopted in 2010.
This time I lived in London and finally reached a point where I tried various “formats” of a vegan diet – like 80/10/10 (where you are supposed to eat mainly fruit) and a lower carb version.
However, I didn’t feel satiated anymore. I was tired of constantly needing to eat and looking five months pregnant around the clock. Besides, I was never able to race because I was afraid I would need to hide behind the bushes after the first 10 minutes due to my misbehaving bowels.
One day I couldn’t resist the smell of smoked mackerel that had been luring me for a few days already. So, I bought a pack of smoked mackerel fillets and ate it already on the streets of London. I expected to feel guilty for eating it, but I didn’t. Shortly after that, I adopted an all-meat diet.
Why I did that and my experiences eating only meat for the next three years is a story for another day. However, what is important is that my niggles disappeared, and amazingly my knee pain and swelling that would accompany almost every run slowly disappeared as well.
Of all the three factors described in this article, eating meat again had the most significant favorable influence on my running.
I don’t eat an all-meat diet anymore, but eating this way has taught me the importance of animal foods for recovery and repair.
2. Wearing Minimalist and Zero-Drop Shoes And Barefoot Walking
There is a lot of discussion on wearing minimalist shoes and barefoot running in the running community. Heated arguments for both shod and barefoot running fill the internet, and both sides provide valid arguments.
Wearing minimalist and zero-drop shoes and going barefoot every once in a while has proven beneficial to my running.
I already started experimenting with minimalist-style shoes when I was still eating a vegan diet. When I switched from cushioned running shoes to minimalist style shoes, my hips and ankles were less achy after running. That was an early win. I believe wearing these shoes also improved my running form over time.
In summer, I like to walk barefoot in the forests and over grass.
One issue that I always had was finding shoes with a wide enough toe box.
My feet are decorated with bunions – likely due to genetics and wearing shoes since early childhood. Both my grandma and my mother have bunions, and it seems that a family history of bunions predisposes one to develop them.
These bunions led to foot pain whenever I ran or walked longer distances in shoes. Even the minimalist style shoes I tried from well–known running brands caused me to have pains because most of them have a too-narrow toe box.
When I started running again this year, I knew I would be using minimalist shoes again. After buying Five Finger shoes and a pair of Saguaros, I stumbled upon Altra running shoes.
They have more cushioning than Five Fingers and Saguaros. But they also have zero drops, which means the heel and forefoot are at equal distance from the ground. They are the only running shoe company I know that produces shoes with a wide toe box designed to let your toes spread out naturally.
For me, they are the best alternative to running barefoot or in minimalist shoes since they offer more protection from the elements and give my feet enough room.
3. Training For Strength
After a few months of running, I started my first strength training exercises. A favorite running magazine advertised it as highly important for staying injury-free and becoming faster.
I reluctantly performed push-ups and sit-ups in my bedroom at night. At first, I did only a few, though. I was afraid that too much strength training would make me look like a man.
Now I have overcome my fears around strength training, and I am as passionate about strength training as I am about running.
My favorite piece of equipment for strength training are kettlebells, and I think kettlebells and running are a perfect match.
Exercises I include are the military press, front squat, kettlebell swing, cleans, snatches, and farmer’s walks. Since my goal is to develop full-body strength, you won’t see me doing isolation exercises or bodybuilding-style routines. Instead, I focus on low reps with heavy weights and compound exercises.
I also like to do ballistic exercises, like a few rounds of double clean and press and snatches, to train myself to stay calm under pressure and develop focus and reactiveness.
But strength training does not only mean weight training in the classical sense. I also do hikes with a heavy backpack or longer runs with a fully loaded backpack.
All of these activities help me to be a stronger runner – both physically and mentally.
Does strength training also make me faster? I don’t know. But it has made my body more robust and resilient, which undoubtedly benefits my running pursuits.
Be A Better Athlete To Be A Better Runner
I have developed from someone who runs into a runner. I changed not only my self-image but also my eating habits, footwear, and strength training philosophy over the years.
I am still learning and evolving as a runner.
However, I now believe that I need to be a better athlete to be a better runner. And focusing on nutrition that supports recovery, choosing footwear that allows for natural running form, and strengthening my body through resistance exercise have been pivotal to my injury-prevention success.