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Prevent Injury While Training for Marathons, Ironmans and Triathlons

Long races are grueling, but training might be the most dangerous part

It doesn’t matter if it’s a marathon, an Ironman or a triathlon — you don’t just wake up and compete in an endurance race. It takes months of training and planning. Unfortunately, all that training can go to waste if you suffer an injury before the big day.

To help you get the most out of your training, we talked to Jason Diehl, MD, an endurance sports specialist at OhioHealth’s MAX Sports Medicine facility and the team physician for USA Triathlon. If you heed his advice, you’ll have a better chance of making it to the starting line.

Person holding knee with brace on it

You’re More Likely to Experience Pain than You Think

You may have completed smaller races but high-endurance races require a more advanced level of training. As a result, there is an increased possibility you will experience aches and pains in the weeks before your race.

Diehl says, “Fifty percent of athletes or more will experience some type of pain during training.” With this in mind, it’s important you stay vigilant for any hints of injury. This will help you identify injuries early.

Exercise shoes, headphones and a clipboard with a blank workout plan on it

Avoid Rapidly Increasing Training Miles

Diehl says the “biggest mistake athletes make is overtraining.” How can they avoid that? “Athletes should have a base of training for six months or more,” Diehl says. This base should consist of three to five hours of training per week.

By completing this training first, your body becomes acclimated to a regular exercise program. Still want to race? Go ahead! Sign up for a local 5K or 10K. Finishing a short race first will help you steadily increase your distances — which is much safer than starting with a long high-endurance race.

Man drinking protein shake from bottle

You Can Probably Skip the Protein Shakes

When people start training for distance races, they may feel the need to drastically increase their caloric intake, which is not necessarily true. “Overall calorie and protein needs during training are slightly higher than normal, but they are often easily met with a nonvegetarian diet,” Diehl says. “There is no need to make major modifications if an athlete is eating a well-balanced diet high in fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, beans, healthy fats and lean protein.”

Closeup of someone running on a concrete path outdoors

Biking and Running Offer the Greatest Risk of Injury — for Different Reasons

Although all of these activities have some risk of injury, some are more dangerous than others. Diehl says cycling is associated with the highest risk of acute trauma, while running has the greatest risk of injury from repetitive impact.

As you might expect, the speed of cycling offers a greater risk of acute injury due to the chance of crashes. A wreck can result in contusions, fractures, separations and sprains. On the other hand, running can cause tendinitis, fasciitis, bursitis and stress fractures from constant pounding on the pavement. Use this knowledge to your advantage, and be wary of these injuries during training.

Sports medicine doctor assessing running injury on a person's knee while they on an exam table

Early Intervention Is Key to Staying on Track

When training, it is crucial you keep an eye out for aches and pains. Diehl says once an athlete begins to experience discomfort, the exercise should be modified for a short period, ice should be used to reduce swelling and over-the-counter analgesics can be taken for occasional pain. But if the pain persists, alters your gait or causes joint or bone discomfort, go see a sports medicine doctor.

Your muscles may get tight during training. If this is the case, you’re going to want our foam rolling tips!