Tips for Long Distance Runners: Beating Physical, Mental Challenges

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December 28, 2020


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The COVID-19 pandemic has upended many events, forcing most to go virtual. For 2021, this also applies to the cancelled Miami Marathon and Half Marathon that usually occurs in late January, when about 20,000 runners take on the 26.2 mile course through sections of downtown Miami and Miami Beach.

This year, the race is actually a “first-ever digital rendering of our world-renowned event taking place January 10 – 31, 2021,” organizers state. Runners can chose their distance – 5K, half marathon (13.1 miles) or full marathon.

Long distance runners this year will face many of the same challenges linked to avoiding injury, dehydration and mental and physical fatigue — in addition to the newest challenge of wearing a mask and social distancing if others are nearby.

Proper physical and mental preparation is a must when you run for long distances, says Michael Swartzon, M.D., primary care and sports medicine physician with Miami Orthopedics & Sports Medicine Institute. He was medical director of last year’s Miami Marathon and Half Marathon. Baptist Health South Florida was a sponsor and the official medical provider for the event, providing assistance at the various first-aid and medical stations along the full course.

“Both physically and mentally, our bodies take a lot of abuse,” says Dr. Swartzon. “Not just from the actual pounding of running, but in the muscles, lack of nutrition, the need for electrolytes, and the heat. And then of course, from the mental perspective, continuing for several hours with a repetitive activity. It takes a lot of training.”

Runners will experience physical strains or injuries from overuse or lack of conditioning on day they undertake a half marathon or full marathon, even if they have completed months of training that resulted in successful long weekend runs of about 20 miles for the full marathoners, and 10 miles for half-marathoners.

However, most injuries tend to be minor, based on experience from previous marathon events. Many runners simply underestimate the need for regular hydration with water or sports drinks that refill the body’s “electrolytes.” Common electrolytes include sodium, potassium and calcium. They regulate nerve and muscle function, hydrate the body, balance blood acidity and pressure, and help rebuild damaged tissue — all essential functions for endurance athletes.

“On race day, there are injuries that are going to happen,” says Dr. Swartzon. “But it’s really the training the helps prepare runners for finishing the race. It’s all about your training, your form and trying to keep going and not pulling a hamstring, or not tripping or falling and scraping your knee.”

Those who are occasional runners and are considering taking part in a long-distance event should consult with their doctor to make sure they are no underlying health issues that could surface with the strains of training.

“Before anyone starts any training regiment, it is advisable to consult with a medical professional,” says Rob Henry, sports medicine outreach coordinator with Miami Orthopedics & Sports Medicine Institute. “And you want to start small at a smart pace. You don’t want to reach for the stars. And if you can’t run a marathon, there are shorter race events. There are half-marathons and 5Ks (3.1 miles). There are other things you can do at home. You don’t have to run a marathon to stay in shape.”

For those experienced runners who have trained for a long run, it’s important not to introduce anything new to their routine on race morning, says Frankie Ruiz, chief running officer for Life Time Fitness and co-founder of the Miami Marathon.

“I hope they’re not doing anything new that morning,” Mr. Ruiz says. “They should be doing the same routine. You’ve prepared what you’re going to eat, what shoes you’ll be wearing and the running clothes you’ll be wearing … Give yourself enough time to enjoy that energy and possibly deal with the unexpected.”

Here are 5 tips for injury-free running:

1. Avoid Doing Too Much, Too Soon
They are referred to as the “terrible too’s” — doing too much, too soon and too fast. The body requires time, rest and proper nutrition to reach the level required for long-duration events such as marathons. Muscles and joints need to recover throughout a typical six-month training program for a marathon.

2. Proper Hydration/Nutrition
South Florida is notorious for its heat and humidity, but even in January the weather can be stifling for marathoners. Long-distance runners need to take extra care in staying properly hydrated during all phases of training, as well as during the event itself. Learn how to measure your “sweat rate,” which is based on the amount of liquid your body loses after an hour of exercise. By calculating your sweat rate, you can better evaluate what you should drink to replace lost fluid and help avoid injuries. Runners also need to get the right carbs at the right times. Running clubs can help with dietary advice as can dietitians or your primary doctor. Also read: Fueling for the Marathon: Top 5 Common Mistakes

3. Listen to Your Body
Most running injuries, commonly involving knees, the feet, the Achilles heel or the hamstring, don’t appear suddenly. They usually provide slow-developing warning signs that should not be ignored. Normally, these red flags include aches, soreness or a persistent pain. It’s up to each runner to heed the signs and see a doctor before serious injury develops. If signs persist after proper rest and ice/heat treatments, a physician may recommend physical therapy.

4. Get the Right Running Shoes
Don’t underestimate the importance of the proper running shoes, especially for marathoners. An estimated 15 percent to 20 percent of running injuries involve the feet. Plantar fasciitis, small tears or inflammation of the tendons and ligaments from heel to toes, is usually the No. 1 foot complaint among runners. Those runners with very high or very low arches are more vulnerable, so the properly-fitted running shoes are vital for distance athletes.

5. Monitor Progress/Set Goals
Detailed workout logs and periodic goals can keep you from those overuse injuries. Keeping a journal of how you did and how you felt during your long training runs can help you determine if a trip to the doctor is necessary. For example, you may notice during one weekend run that your knees started aching. If the ache worsens, you then have a precise record to share with your doctor regarding the start and duration of the pain. Monitoring progress and setting realistic goals are important tools for keeping the proper training pace and avoiding common injuries.

Watch Now:

The Baptist Health News Team hears from dietitian Carla Duenas; sports medicine outreach coordinator Rob Henry; and marathon organizer Frankie Ruiz during a Facebook Live session about prepping for the upcoming marathon and half-marathon..

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