I am the lucky owner of several congenital misalignments in my feet and spine, but I have a large engine that allows me to run fast despite my large frame. Keeping myself healthy has been a solid challenge throughout my career and it still is, despite a very determined effort to remain injury-free. I have tried a lot of different combinations of shoes and orthotics. In later years, I also tried a gradual adaptation to a more minimalist approach, but I’ve never succeeded in finding a single solution. Rather, I have come to believe that staying injury-free is an ongoing process in which initiatives to improve body function and awareness must go hand in hand with the desire to train longer and harder. The barefoot idea seems to demand a greater focus on this balance, which, when compared with the shoe tech focus, is even better, but there are still many more things to consider.
An overuse injury is always a matter of overtraining. An injury never occurs out of the blue. It occurs because the body was stressed more than it was ready to handle. Often we have a tendency to think of our body and mind as absolute in nature. We have a certain build and a certain technique for running; we have a certain character and certain traits that are part of us, good or bad. We are constructing a static vision of ourselves and who we are.
In the real world, however, our bodies and minds adapt to what we put them through. After doing your first Ironman, your perception of what is possible to achieve goes through the roof most likely because your mind adapted throughout the process of overcoming numerous obstacles in the preparation for and during the race. Our body functions the same way, constantly adapting over time to the challenges we endure. So rather than looking for quick fixes, we should see improvement and injury prevention as a cyclic, ongoing process.
How this process leads to either superior performance or breakdown was elegantly conceptualized by the Hungarian scientist Nikolai Jakowlew in 1967. His theory of supercompensation is one of the most basic principles for training and changes in body function. If you are able to apply this model in real life, you are basically guaranteed success, but it will most likely take you the better part of a lifetime to fully understand the practical application.
Jakowlew starts by stating that any kind of activity puts a load on the body. In fact, any training we do breaks us down. Energy stores are depleted and small tears occur in tendons and muscles. We get tired. Once we stop activity, we enter the recovery phase. If we allow adequate rest and sufficient nutrients, the body, will gradually recover to its starting point. Given more time, it will actually supercompensate and grow just a little stronger. Tendons and muscles heal and strengthen while energy stores grow a tad bigger. The body will see an increase in fitness after several successive sessions in which the amount of training stress and recovery time are planned so that every new session occurs at the height of supercompensation. If, however, the recovery window is too short and you engage in a new training session before supercompensation occurs, you will start a downward slide in your training.
While this is an elegantly simple model in theory, it holds multiple practical challenges. First, the training stress and recovery times of different body structures are extremely varied. While the circulatory system and our muscles respond rather quickly, our tendons and ligaments require far longer recovery time because of minimal blood flow to them. In an ankle sprain, it takes a full nine months for the ligament to regain its normal strength, while muscle tears heal in just a few months.
This principle becomes relevant when discussing overuse injuries in running. The injured part of your body was not allowed adequate time for recovery. In many cases I believe we can adapt to anything, whether big cushioned soles or no shoes at all. It is just a matter of how long it will take. Hence every injury is due to lack of patience and adequate response to what your body is telling you.
In this thematic context, injuries are not related to wearing shoes or not wearing shoes. Injuries are connected to taming our eagerness to improve and, increasing our knowledge of what we can do to become better and understanding that the body does not change or adjust in a week or a month. It takes many months for small changes to occur, and it takes years to make radical changes—there is no easy way.