I am often asked how my sister, Lorraine, managed to last so long at, or near the top internationally as a runner? That’s a fair question because Lorraine’s career lasted an astonishing 28 years, representing New Zealand in events as diverse as the 800m, cross-country and the marathon. She is the only female runner to have run four consecutive Olympic Marathons. She is still arguably the fastest ever female ultra-distance runner with her best over 50 km just a tad over 3 hours and 23 minutes.
Whether we are marathon runners or walkers, there are some lessons we can all learn from the experiences of durable extreme athletes such as Lorraine. So, what do I think is the most valuable take home message from studying Lorraine’s durability?
There are, of course, many, including nutrition, rest and following the Lydiard Training Method; but the one that is most valuable is this:
Have a back-up plan!
If ever there was a fatal flaw in a person’s fitness programme it is not having an alternative activity should one ever get ill or injured.
Lorraine was a competitive swimmer before she took up running. Once she switched to running she continued to swim at least once or twice a week. Swimming was her back-up plan. If the joints or tendons began to ache, being conditioned for swimming, she was able to seamlessly switch the emphasis of her training to swimming, thus giving her legs a well earned rest for several days. Meanwhile, her fitness barely suffered.
A runner or walker who has no alternative activity that they have had ticking quietly away in the background is at great risk of suffering season-ending injuries and potentially career-ending ones.
Unless there is a large bus involved, most walking and running injuries are of the slow motion kind: They creep up on you over several days, starting with a niggle that eventually causes a painful halt. By switching immediately to your back up activity at the first hint of a niggle, the odds are it will never come to anything.
Your back-up plan can be a gym programme a couple of times a week, swimming, paddling, yoga, riding a bike. If you are a walker or runner, it would be preferable that your alternative is low impact, non weight-bearing and not entirely reliant on the legs - just in case your injury is something like a stress fracture. Swimming is perfect when you think about it.
So, if, for example, you are out on your long Sunday walk and you slip and twist your ankle, or maybe you just start to get a niggle of tendonitis in a knee. Your action is to take the next four days off all walking and switch to swimming daily. This “actively” rests the injured part while the gentle exercise will expedite recovery. On the fourth day, cautiously resume walking, keeping close to home so you can cut the walk short if needed.
This is simple, effective injury management!