The 10% Rule: How to Break it

If you’re a runner you’ve heard about the 10% rule but you’ve probably noticed a lot of plans tell you to break it on the regular. In short it states that you shouldn’t increase your milage more than 10% of what you did last week. The idea is that if you push too hard too fast you’ll end up with an overuse injury from overtraining. But it’s also a guideline that prevents you from doing too much and ending up tiered, miserable and sore even if you don’t wind up injured. Depending on what you are reading it’s the number one rule in running or doesn’t matter at all and is totally outdated. So which is it? Well it’s complicated but if you’re reading this chances are you want to break it. How do you know if you can break the 10% rule, if it applies to you specifically or if you can just sort of accept it and move on. Well sometimes it’s actually too much to increase your milage by other times it pretty doesn’t apply so which category do you fall into?

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When you might want to break it

Why would you want to break the 10% rule if it’s a rule, are you just a rule breaker for the sake of it? Maybe, but there are a few scenarios that might come up where you might want to push past 10%. One might be the fact that your plan tells you to and that sketches you out a bit. You might also want to participate in a longer race that is not that far away. Say your friend asks you to run a half with her and it’s only 8 weeks away, can you do it? Perhaps you want to tackle a particular training program with little to no base to start from and jump right into week one. Maybe you’re just really excited about your new fitness regime and you want to kick it up to the next level like right now!

When it doesn’t matter

There are times you can almost, ALMOST ignore the 10% rule but it should be in the back of your mind even still. If you are very, very young like pre 25 your body is still very resistant to injury, it gets worse as you get older but if you are very young you can get away with a lot more. Another consideration that makes it apply to you to a lesser extent is if you are thinner and in generally good health. If you are thinner there is less stress on your body as you land and exercise generally making it a bit easier on your body. If you’ve never had an injury or aren’t dealing with any ongoing health issues you are in that lucky category you might be able to push it a bit harder than suggested. Finally if you are training for a multi-sport event like triathlon the 10% rule is less of an issue for you because your plan is basically cross training all the time. Cross training is one of the best ways to prevent getting injured if you are doing lots of different activities for whatever reason the 10% rule is less of an issue for you than someone who is focusing on one sport in particular. If you’re just starting out by definition you have to break the 10% rule because 10% of 0 is still 0. If you are just starting out running start slow, go for a mile or two, two or three times a week until you are consistent, then add a mile or a run to the schedule. Overuse injuries aren’t even a really big concern until you get into higher weekly milages. Under 8 miles or about 13 km a week you should be in the clear anyway. But remember the ‘rule’ is a good general guideline if you are breaking it in a big way week after week you aren’t invincible no matter how, young, thin and healthy you are.

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Being a multi-faceted exerciser goes a long way to prevent injury. Take up a second sport!

Who it specifically applies to

The 10% rule has been around for a long time because it’s a good guideline in general for most people. Most of us have a few pounds to loose, aren’t a teenager or have a few health issues here and there but aren’t dealing with anything major. We might have even have had an injury in the past, a bad back or some other nagging body part then this rule should probably be followed. If you’re cautious or feel better following the rules in general, I do, there is no reason not to follow this rule. Like I said it’s been around a long, LONG time and in general it is a really good guideline. If you want to up your milage it is safer to do it more slowly over time. Plus upping your distances more slowly will leave you less burnt out, you’ll have an easier time fitting it into your schedule and a better chance of sticking with it if you don’t go all out right out of the gate. For most of us the 10% rule is still a pretty good guideline.

Who should do less

Believe it or not there are people that should do less than the 10% rule, some a lot less. Some people really should have their doctors, trainers and coaches following them every step of the way. If you have dealt with or are dealing with a serious or ongoing injury you should increase your milage by less and focus more than average on strength training, cross training and physio rather than the sport that made you injured, probably running. There is another group that should do less and those are people with serious health concerns that are likely to be aggravated by running or training especially in the short term. Diabetes can be aggravated by exercise in the short term causing dramatic dangerous swings in blood sugar but on the other hand is one of the best ways to improve your diabetes long term is exercise and weight control. Heart disease is another issue you can trigger angina and other issues by exercising and attention must be paid to your heart rate while doing so in conjunction with your doctor. But… one of the best ways to reverse your trajectory long term is to condition your cardiovascular system and even reverse previous damage. People dealing with asthma, arthritis, auto-immune issues and so many other long term serious health effects should defiantly check with their doctors before starting an exercise program but go slow, stay at that level for a long time, when your doctor gives you the okay, kick it up just a little bit and repeat. The truth of the matter is starting an exercise program with a variety of health conditions can raise your risks for bad outcomes in the very short term but the other side of the storey is that in the longer term being a regular exerciser might be the best thing you can do to reverse the trajectory your on. TALK TO YOUR DOCTOR OFTEN and be careful, you can read more about this here. Once you’re done with that chat, think about how you can start out safely. I would recommend joining a staffed gym even if you just want to walk slowly on the treadmill for a few minutes. Let the staff on duty each day know what you are dealing with health wise and specifically what you might look like if you need help and what they should do if you need it. Even if your real and true desire is to become a solo trail runner, you can totally get there, just start of in the safest environment possible.

How to break it if you want to

Alright now that we got past all that disclaimer stuff, just kidding it’s important. Here are some tips to prevent an overuse injury if your going to break that 10% rule. Probably do as many as possible that apply to you:

  • Add in some preventative physio exercises for common or previous injuries about three days a week. It only takes a few minutes
  • Don’t just say I moved some today when cross training comes up on the schedule actually do it and pick an exercise that targets different muscles from your main sport. Look into what the pros for your sport use to re-hab injuries, that’s a good place to start.
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Yoga can be a great way to cross train!
  • Break it by as little as possible each week rather than one big spurt. So if your starting a training program late rather than diving directly into a given week start a bit earlier and maybe skip weeks to break the rule less often or by a smaller amount over more time.
  • Dedicated strength training is also a great way to prevent injury so think about adding that to the cross training schedule.
  • If you have dealt with overuse injuries in the past think about hiring a trainer for a session a week during training programs who can design a program just for you. Plus paying for it means you’re more likely to do it.
  • Draw out your program for longer and pick a later race so you don’t have to break the 10% rule. I know not very realistic but it really is the best practice.
  • Foam rolling and stretching before and after a work out aren’t necessarily proven to help prevent injuries but antidotal evidence suggests it can work well. It’s worth a try.
  • Don’t overdo it on hard workouts these are the ones that are more likely to contribute to injury. Keep it to once a week and try to follow the 10% rule for these at least.
  • Avoid doing one training cycle after another especially if you’re breaking the rule. Give yourself a break in between!
  • Monitor your resting heart rate and HRV data. It’s the only really objective proven measure of overtraining that might predict injury before it happens. If you start to notice changes dial back your training.
  • Finally keep tabs and checking in on your own body you know it best. Are you starting to feel REALLY tiered, cranky or irritable? If so you might be overtraining and it might be time to dial it back. But this can be tough to because even if you’re not overtraining getting ready for a big event can make you feel that way too.

So where do you fall on the 10% rule, hogwash or a ride or die rule? Have you ever ended up injured when you didn’t follow it or when you did? Do you have any tips for how to break it and still prevent injury.

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