5 Ways to Beat Injury

GB sprinter Harry Aikines-Aryeetey gives us his hard-earned advice on how to avoid and overcome the pain of injury


Posted: 8 July 2010
by Ben Palfreyman

Put a pin in it

After great initial success with a gold at the World Youth Championships in 2006, Harry suffered from a spinal injury which took him out of action for almost a year. Stress fractures on the vertebral column in his back meant he was reduced to almost no exercise, and his recovery was slow and painful.

One of the alternative therapies he used was acupuncture, and Harry today is a passionate advocate of the technique. "I still have acupuncture today. It's brilliant." Harry tells us, "Where massages can't reach, you can just stick some needles into that area. At one time, I had 50 acupuncture needles in me."

Acupuncture involves pins being inserted in the skin on lines called 'energy meridians'. Chinese tradition dictates that good health is the result of a harmony between different life forces known as chi, which is said to flow through these pathways in the body, and which can be accessed through 350 acupuncture points. Needles inserted into these points are thought to keep the energy flow in balance.

In the west, acupuncture is explained through neuroscience. Acupuncture points are seen as places where nerves, muscles and connective tissue can be stimulated. This stimulation increases blood flow, triggering the activity of the body's natural painkillers. Many acupuncture patients report increased energy, better sleep, a healthier appetite and greater confidence - all of which will help you be a better runner.

Access your inner core

Harry's tough rehab included wearing a back brace, and plenty of walking drills and Pilates. "As you can't isolate back muscles, you can use Pilates to get to the cause of the problem," he says.

Pilates is an effective way of strengthening your back and core -stretching and developing the muscles of your joints and extremities. Tight or imbalanced muscles in the back are regular causes of injury as they are often ignored in training. Pilates can balance those muscles by simultaneously stretching and strengthening the muscles that are pulling the spine and joints in different directions.

Track down a professional Pilates class at your local gym. In the meantime, here's two taster exercises:

Lateral or side bend Sit tall with your arms hanging at your side. Take a deep breath slowly and as you exhale, bend at the waist to the side reaching one hand to the floor. As you do this action, make sure you keep your hips and buttocks firmly on the chair. Take another breath and as you exhale, you should feel your abs engage at the waist to bring you straight back up over your hips. Repeat on each side 4-8 times. This exercise aims to strengthen your lower back and oblique muscles, as well as stretching the muscles along the sides of the spine that get tight if you are sitting down all day for work.

Single leg stretch Lie on your back with your head and shoulders lifted, one knee pulled close to your chest and the other leg stretched out at a 45° angle. You should feel that this position is working your abs. Switch legs in a slow and fluid motion, continuing to breathe deeply and focusing on your technique. Perform 10-20 reps. This exercise aims to stretch the muscles that can tighten the lower back while strengthening the abdominal muscles.

Get back on track

The road to running again begins when you feel you are ready to hit the road. And the first thing to do is... not return. Give yourself another week to ensure your body has really had enough time to heal - our desire to run again nearly always means we return too soon.

Before you hit the trails, diagnose and fix the basic cause of the injury, whether it is bad shoes, poor nutrition or inadequate preparation before you run. Remember that although your injury may have healed, your cardiovascular fitness and muscle strength won't be what it was before your injury.

When Harry returned to running he performed sessions of 120m sprints. "I do four sets of 120s with six to ten minutes in between each one," he says. Getting back up to speed through tempo work is just as important for distance runners as it is for sprinters, so to ease back in, go back to what you did as a beginner and do 5 minutes run to 3 minutes walk for your first week or so.

Give it a curl

Plagued by injury, Harry has also had to battle with hamstring tendonitis. This is a common problem for runners, especially professionals who work as hard as Aikines-Ayreetey.

His advice? "Try hamstring curls as they isolate the muscle."

Lie on your stomach on a hamstring curl machine keeping your hips flush against the bench, your abdominal muscles tight and a natural arch in your spine. Curl the weight up to a 90° angle from the machine in one smooth controlled motion, stopping where you feel comfortable. Lower the weight, stop just before your knees are straight and reverse the action back up. Do 3 sets of 12 reps.

Spot training exercises, which isolate the muscle such as this one, are effective as you can focus on target muscles selectively. Exercises in which you hit lots of muscles at once expend more energy, and although this is often a good thing, it's not what you need to retrain or develop a particular muscle group. This is especially important for the hamstrings, which are often neglected.

The major benefits of the hamstring curl are an improvement of stability and strength. Be careful, though - the position of your legs places torque on the connective tissue in the knee joints and heavy leg curls, especially if you use a lot of momentum, can do real mischief to your knees. If you feel the pressure is too much, cut back on the weights and focus on your motion.

Don't ignore the signs

Avoiding injury is a full-time job for runners, and you should always be aware of your training and nutrition. Experiencing stiffness, soreness and tightness is normal during training, but these should subside after about 10 minutes. Severe tightness or sharp pains that persist throughout the workout and after you finish could indicate something a little more serious, so if you experience this, decrease the intensity and distance and stop to do a full body stretch.

Harry says, "Listen to your body. If you feel a niggle somewhere, do one less rep or rest that part of your body for a while." If symptoms do subside, though, return to your normal workout a couple of days later and continue to be alert to any return of the pain. When recovering from an injury, be cautious. Focus on pain-free training with a slow increase in mileage and intensity.


Harry Akines-Ayreetey is an ambassador for Alfa Romeo, the official car supplier to UK Athletics (UKA). As part of its ongoing commitment to UKA, Alfa Romeo provide vehicles to athletes, as well as a financial contribution to help support the UKA programme.


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