Running isn’t always a comfortable sport. How many times have you felt your glutes burn, your calves stiffen up, or your knees ache after a run? Soreness, which occurs as a result of the microscopic tears stress (read: exercise) causes to your muscles, is normal. In fact, it’s actually a good thing; with proper recovery time, your body actually repairs those microscopic tears in a way that makes your muscles stronger for your next workout. But pain? That’s not normal.
It is common, though: Forty-six percent of runners who logged an average of just over nine miles a week reported some kind of injury over the course of a year, according to a new study of 200-plus recreational runners between the ages of 18 and 55 by the University of Gothenburg. Knee injuries accounted for 27 percent of the issues, while 25 percent of injuries struck the Achilles tendon or calf and 20 percent affected the foot and ankle.
To avoid getting sidelined by injury, you have to be able to differentiate between soreness and actual pain. There are three red flags to watch out for, says AJ Cregg, a chiropractic doctor and the HOKA NAZ Elite team’s official strength and conditioning coach: “If discomfort or pain is causing you to change your stride, gets worse as you run, or it interrupts your next training session, that’s a sign of a bigger issue,” he explains.
The key with any niggles or nagging aches is catching them early. “The earlier you catch a fire, the easier it is to put it out,” says Wes Cregg, a chiropractic doctor who works with the team. Over time, those issues get bigger and bigger and eventually make recovery that much more difficult.
Of course, it takes time to learn what’s normal for your body, says Ben Rosario, head coach and founder of NAZ Elite. “Especially as a beginner, there’s a period you have to go through as the body naturally adapts to new exercise,” he explains. “But eventually you get to a point where you know what feels right or wrong, and it really becomes about listening to your body and giving it the attention it needs.” Case in point: Glute feeling extra tight after a long run? Go treat yourself to a massage; don’t let that tightness linger.
When you ignore an issue, it’s inevitable that the repetitive nature of running will eventually bring it to a head. A 10-minute mile consists of 1,700 steps, according to research in the American College of Sports Medicine’s Health & Fitness Journal, with each one producing ground reaction forces about two and a half times your body weight. In case you’re bad at math, that’s a lot of impact to withstand.
One of the best things you can do to keep your body operating at 100 percent is to smartly manage your training volume. There’s an old runners’ “rule” that says not to increase your workload by more than 10 percent week to week. That’s not quite accurate; research published in 2018 in the British Journal of Sports Medicine suggested a better metric to follow would be increasing your acute-to-chronic workload ratio (i.e. how much you ran this week versus how much you ran over the past four weeks) by 0.8 to 1.3. For example, if you’re been running 20 miles a week, you wouldn’t want to increase your mileage by more than six miles the next week.
The point is, “it comes down to exposure—any spikes, chronically or acutely, in intensity or volume, tend to reveal weak points,” says AJ. “You’re not trying to bite off more than you can chew, and you’re really going for gains over time.”
Making time for warm-ups and cooldowns also goes a long way. “I think ‘pre-run activation’, or doing certain dynamic exercises that wake up the different muscle groups that are about to be used, is really important,” says Rosario. After all, you can’t just go from hunching over a laptop for eight hours into an hour of high-intensity cardio and expect everything to work like a well-oiled machine without loosening up your body from that desk jockey position.
Foam rolling, using compression boots, and other post-run treatments can also help you kickstart the recovery process, he says—and that will help you start every workout recharged. You may not be an elite athlete with the best physical therapists, sports massage therapists, chiropractors, and whatnot on speed dial, but knowing who those people are in your area and when to employ them is important, says Rosario.
It’s not always about buying into the hype around a certain recovery product, though. Don’t underestimate the power of your lifestyle choices when it comes to injury prevention. Sleep, for example, was argued to be the single most important factor in exercise recovery in 2019 research from the International Journal of Sports Medicine.
“If you’re not sleeping eight hours a night and not eating well and staying hydrated, your performance is going to suffer,” says Wes. Running requires more than just your legs, and if your brain and your body aren’t properly primed for a workout, it’s going to feel harder and do more damage.
And remember: Training plans aren’t written in stone. “A lot of what we’re doing with athletes, especially at the elite level, is modified daily,” says West. “Everything has to be taken with context as to what else is going on in their life, especially in terms of how they’re feeling.”
That same approach applies to you. If you’re stressed at work, were out drinking the day before, or had a bad nights’ sleep and need the day off, give yourself that permission. Prioritizing recovery over forcing yourself through a workout your body isn’t ready for will actually do more for you in the long run.