Intro to Red Bar Basics

Dr. Jeff Moreno breaks down the reasons runners experience training load errors, and corresponding "red bars" in their PWR Lab account.

2009 Chicago Marathon was my third marathon and a day that all the stars seemed to align. I finished in the 2:40’s placing me in the top 250 of all participants. A good start for a runner that came to the sport late. I loved the process of pushing the limits of my personal performance and running gave me the avenue to explore those possibilities. 

At the same time, I also knew that between running 90+ miles a week, working 40+ hours as a physical therapist, and being a new father, something had to give. Following the Chicago Marathon, I told myself that I would do one more competitive marathon, Boston in the Spring of 2011, and then downshift in a sense and “run for life”. 

As many of you can relate, when you work full time and have a family, you train when you can, and this can take a toll. Throughout this training cycle my quality of sleep started to diminish, my weight dropped significantly, and my body screamed at me daily to rest and recover. I was redlining, but too blind to see it and not confident enough to make decisions toward my own running health. 

My ambition to run fast NOW was overriding all my clinical experience as a physical therapist and any basic reasoning I had gained in the sport as a practitioner. What did this lead to? An angry, injured runner a month and a half out from the Boston Marathon. It wasn’t the outcome that I wanted but the knowledge that came from this experience was far more important than any PB that I could have run that day.

If you have gotten this far in the story I am sure you can relate to the disappointment and frustration that comes with any injury. What I realized was that I needed something to help teach me how to control the moment and guide me in making a decision on behalf of my running health, NOT my desire for the short-term gratification of completing a hard workout.

Leading up to Boston, I knew I was in the red but couldn’t see it and hadn’t learned to listen to my body and downshift when necessary. I tell you this story because PWR Lab is built by runners for runners who understand that performance through sustained health is the only performance that lasts. We understand YOU and know how motivated you are to step on the start line and perform at your best. The emails we get daily asking “Why am I in the red and what do I do next?” are important and we take them very seriously because it can be the difference between you achieving your goals or injured, frustrated, and unable to run. Below are the Red Bar Basics to help keep you running healthy.

The RED Bar Basics: 

If you have recently encountered a red bar, PLEASE understand that the world is NOT going to end, you are probably not going to get injured tomorrow, but your risk is higher, and knowing that is an opportunity to make a smarter decision toward your long term running goals. Back to the basics, red bars are a result of: 
  • How long, how hard, and how often you are running in the last week (7 days) compared to your last month of training. 
    • Example: >50% increase in volume and intensity over a week compared to the average weekly volume and intensity over the last month. 
  • Most would agree that 50% increase in training is NOT a smart training decision and could lead to injury and lost training availability. Well, that is exactly what the red bar is indicating and why it is important.
Below are four scenarios and the Red Bar Basics that may be relatable and explain why you are in the red and what to do next. My hope is that you won’t wait as I did and react to an injury, but use this knowledge to make a proactive decision toward your running health.

The New To Running Runner: 

First, I want to welcome you to this wonderful activity that literally will add years to your life and improve your physical and mental health if done consistently. If you are reading this, you may be wondering about all those red bars you are currently encountering. This is completely normal and you will be fine, but with little to no recent history of running, we need to get a few things straight. The point of these current red bars is to help you control your excitement, not to run too much too soon, and help you balance that motivation with control objectively. 

The first month of running will be essential to lower your injury risk and successfully complete your long term goals. Expect to see those red bars for 3-4wks until we get enough of your data to understand you and your running habits. Until then, we got your back and in order to help here is a 4-Week Guide to start running along with a few things to consider to help you achieve your first green bar and avoid injury within this first month of running:
  1. Walk/Run with a little more walking than running. Believe me your muscles and tendons will thank you for it. 
  2. Run at least 3x/wk with a day in between to recover. 
  3. Show-up. Focus first on being consistent… running 10 minutes is better than nothing. 
  4. Less is more! Every day you are able to run healthy is another day closer to achieving your individual goals. 
  5. Plan your workouts in PWR Lab to keep your bars green.

The Return to Running Runner:

If you are returning to running from an injury, or just happen to be coming back from an extended break of greater than 1-2 months then this is for you and you might want to pay attention. That red bar you are staring at and wondering why it is there, I have an answer for you. 

Most of you, prior to getting injured or taking a break, had been running which means you have data in the system. This is important and helps us to understand your previous level of consistency and experience. Now that you are starting to run again, those bones, muscles, and tendons need time to get used to hitting the ground again at 2.5x your body weight. The red bar is NOT at all to stop you from running, but to control the urge to do more during this reloading phase. Some things to consider: 
  1. The reloading phase will take a 3-4 week and over that time those red bars will gradually turn to green. The red bars are there to help you acutely listen and pay attention to what your body may be telling you during this reloading period. The less time you took off the faster those green bars will return. 
  2. Navigate to your Daily Checklist in the app and “Plan Your Next Workout”  to help you reload safely. 

The Seasonal Runner: 

If you are a recreational or high school runner, that enjoys other activities or has an offseason and may run infrequently during those periods, this is for you. 

Taking a break from running is called unloading and returning to running from a break is called reloading. Think of this like peaks and valleys that occur within a year of running. This reloading period needs to be controlled and requires time to keep the curve long and flat.  If this is not possible, like in some high school cross country programs, then those red bars you are encountering are telling you to hold back and focus on running consistently with less volume and intensity. In the future work on avoiding this the seasonal peaks and valleys in your running and trying to keep at least 3 day/wk if possible during your breaks. 

Your level of experience with running, injury history, and relationship with your coach will help to determine the rate of reloading. Two scenarios to consider: 
  1. If experienced and minimal injury history closely watch those red bars, connect them with how you are feeling during training, and if you feel good, proceed as planned with caution and work toward those consistent green bars. 
  2. If less experienced and a history of injuries: use the red bars as an indicator that you are doing too much too soon and you need to back off. Use the Workout Builder to help guide your return to avoid spikes that potentially lead to injuries.

The Experienced and Well-Trained Runner: 

If you are a collegiate, professional runner, or highly trained and motivated recreational runner then this is for you. If you are running at this level then you know that you can only get better if you are able to train. You are going to see red bar spikes in your training occasionally and this may be due to significant changes in volume and intensity due to your intense training schedule. These spikes may also be influenced by your academic calendar, travel, racing schedule, etc. This is completely normal, but always worth noting and paying attention to during the next 7-10 days following those spikes. 

What I see as the biggest problem for those in this highly motivated group are the planned breaks following a cross country season or a big race and the return from those breaks. It is the return to hard training that causes significant spikes in running volume and intensity that often occur and results in those red bars you are seeing. You may feel great, but the downtime time allowed those bones, muscles, and tendons time to lose some of their resiliency and robustness. So, a few things to consider to limit your time in the red and help you return to hard training safely: 
  1. When on a planned break or holiday, don’t drain the bank completely. Running 20 mins every other day is better than not running at all and will help to keep your body more robust and resilient when coming back to training.
  2. For the first 3 weeks following a break, avoid spikes in weekly training >20-30% more than the previous week of training and “flatten the curve”. 
  3. Use your Daily Checklist within the app to help connect how you feel to your effort.
  4. “Plan Your Next Training Session” in the app and use the Workout Builder to plan a week in advance to make sure you control the reloading phase. 

New to PWR Lab?

PWR Lab decodes your masses of second-by-second training data and visualizes the insights that matter most. Athletes in motion use PWR Lab to track workload, monitor risk factors, learn about stride characteristics, and forecast future races & workouts. Sign up for a free trial today and experience firsthand how easy it is to predict risk, prevent injury, and perform optimally.

Dr. Jeff Moreno
About Dr. Jeff Moreno

Jeff, co-founder of PWR Lab, is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and Board-Certified Orthopedic Clinical Specialist. Passionate about running and playing, Jeff fundamentally loves people and movement of any kind. He strives to raise the bar in sport by finding ways to proactively prevent injuries and prioritize the long term development of athletes. He has been successful in employing a data-driven, hands-on approach to physiotherapy with National, World & Olympic Championship medalists in Track & Field from USA, China, Canada, and Mexico as well as many NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, Judo, and Triathlon athletes