“Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labor does the body.” – Seneca
Cliff Young was a 61-year-old sheep farmer from Victoria. In 1983 he entered the 875km Sydney to Melbourne ultramarathon. He arrived at the race in overalls and work boots and set off at a slow shuffling pace. At the end of day one, he trailed the pack by a large margin. However, while the other competitors stopped to sleep for six hours, Young took a quick one hour nap and kept running. He ran almost continuously for five days, taking the lead during the first night and eventually winning by 10 hours. Before running the race, he described how he had regularly run for two to three days straight rounding up sheep on his farm, herding up to 2000 sheep on foot. Without realising it, he had built enough capacity in his leg muscles to jog 1000km and in a faster time than his much younger competitors.
In contrast we routinely see young, fit, and healthy runners succumb to injury at distances far less than 5% of what Young covered.
Why do some get injured and others don’t?
While there are many contributors (total stress, diet, biomechanics, etc) the main reason usually relates to a lack of overall conditioning. Either because we simply haven’t trained enough, or because the training hasn’t been consistent. Our bodies don’t tend to like exercise peaks and troughs, particularly as we age. It’s why elite athletes warm up, cool down, and maintain a base level of training throughout the year.
How does this relate to injury during sports like running?
If you embark on something as demanding as the marathon, you need a sustained period of training that allows your bones, joints, and tendons to adapt. Interestingly, our cardiorespiratory systems are incredibly fast at adapting to exercise demands. Anyone who has trained to improve their fitness can appreciate it. What was a challenge one week can become relatively easy the next. Our muscles quickly become more efficient at utilising oxygen to break down sugar and fat, while our heart and lungs quickly become better at delivering it to our muscles.
However, our bones, joints, and tendons take longer to adapt to the increased stress/load that is placed upon them. The cells in our bones and tendons are undergoing constant turnover, and they adapt according to the demands placed upon them. But they don’t adapt as fast as muscle.
So in the case of running, while your fitness is allowing you to increase distances rapidly, in the background your other tissues are undergoing stress at a pace that is often too fast for them to adapt to. Eventually a tipping point is reached, and pain and injury develop.
The London marathon is on Sunday. For those inspired to start running but keen to avoid injury, our resident running guru Alessandro has put together a graded couch to 5km program here.
The reason a 60-year-old sheep farmer could win a 1000km ultramarathon was that he had adapted to long training distances over many years. The highest pyramids need the broadest base, and there is no substitute for consistent work over a long period of time. This applies to most things in life; money, relationships, learning, health. They grow through consistent work. Get working.