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Injuries are part of the running experience. Repetitive stress injuries (like Achilles tendinopathy, IT band syndrome, or runner’s knee) afflict up to 75 percent of runners every year, depending on the study, making the annual injury rate higher than professional football.
But injury prevention can seem just as confusing as your younger cousin’s NFT project. To make it clearer, let’s highlight the most common training errors that increase your injury risk.
Training Error #1: Inconsistent Mileage
The riskiest time to get injured is during periods of increasing weekly mileage. This is when you’re asking your body to do more and more—and often, it simply can’t.
The solution is to have fewer peaks and valleys in your mileage levels. Volume should not swing wildly from week to week or month to month. That won’t allow your body to properly adapt to a certain mileage level.
Instead, focus on running more even mileage throughout the year. You’ll spend less time building and more time maintaining, which will help your legs adapt to the regular load of relatively high mileage.
Training Error #2: Running Too Fast
Most of the miles you run must be at an easy effort. By running at mostly low intensity, you’re then able to run a lot, recover from your hard workouts, and improve your endurance consistently.
Many runners push the effort of their easy runs, turning an easy day into a moderate day. This can negatively impact recovery and increase the injury risk of your training.
Victoria Sekely, a doctor of physical therapy and running coach, agrees. “The biggest mistake that runners make is assuming that every run has to be hard to be effective. To make the most of your hard days, you have to learn how to run easy. A great tip is to run with friends so that you are truly running at conversation pace—talk to your friends for the entire run! If you find you are out of breath, you are probably running too fast.”
Rather than running too fast on easy runs, have the confidence to slow down. Easy runs should be controlled, conversational and comfortable, the “3 C’s” of easy running.
If you can run with a friend and have a conversation, that’s a good sign that you’re truly running at an easy effort.
Training Error #3: No Intensity
Many runners have an off-season, do base training, or take extended time off from running once or twice per year. These time periods have one thing in common: there’s no or very little fast running.
Abandoning intensity for long stretches of time causes the body to lose its adaptation to the stress of running fast. Reintroducing faster workouts then becomes a substantial injury risk.
Instead of completing ignoring speed work, we almost always want to include it in our training (the only exception is during a few weeks after our goal race). This way, we’ll never get too far from experiencing intensity, so our bodies remain well adapted to its stress. But that doesn’t mean our workouts always have to be hard; in fact, there’s a big difference between “hard running” and “fast running.”
Even during base training or an off-season, include strides or simple fartlek training to experience some speed. As long as the overall difficulty of these sessions remains low, we can run fast year-round.
Training Error #4: Running Through Niggles
Many runners hesitate to take time off from running, even when something doesn’t quite feel right. Running through small niggles can often exacerbate them, turning them into full-blown injuries that require weeks for proper recovery.
It’s far easier to take a day or two off from training than a week or two (or longer). So instead of running through discomfort, let’s be more strategic and only run when it’s safe.
Here’s a helpful 3-part checklist for determining whether you can run through discomfort. It’s generally safe to run if:
- The pain is not sharp, stabbing, or severe (and is dull or sore instead)
- The pain does not require you to alter your form to compensate
- The pain does not get worse as you run (and instead, decreases as you run)
If whatever niggle you’re experiencing has all three of these characteristics, you can probably go for an easy run without making things worse. But if you do have one or more of those warning signs, it’s best to take some time off and focus on treating the injury.
Training Error #5: No Strength Training
So far, all of our injury prevention strategies have focused on how you execute your running. In other words, staying healthy demands that you run properly first. That is, hands down, the most effective injury prevention strategy.
In a close second is strength training. It’s so important that I don’t consider it to be cross-training, just part of the normal training process for runners who want to improve.
“Our bodies don’t like the repetitive stress of every stride without any kind of preparation. Strength training is beneficial to runners as it prepares your muscles to handle the load and demands of running,” says Sekely. “Strength training is not only important in the rehab setting, but also as a form of prehab to help reduce your risk of injury.”
If you haven’t added strength work to your program yet, a helpful strategy is to “sandwich” your runs between a dynamic warm-up and a post-run strength or core routine. This reinforces the fact that every training session includes some strength work (and it doesn’t have to be very difficult).
Not sure where to start? Prioritize fundamental, basic exercises like squats, deadlifts, planks, bridges, and other compound, multi-joint movements. A focus on single-leg exercises is also helpful, since running is essentially a series of highly coordinated single leg squats.
Ideally, spend about 15 minutes after each run doing a variety of bodyweight strength exercises, with two days per week of more challenging weightlifting in the gym.
While the injury risk of running can be high, staying healthy doesn’t have to be complicated. Focus on these fundamentals and you’ll thrive as a healthy, pain-free athlete.
Jason Fitzgerald is the host of the Strength Running Podcast and the founder of Strength Running. A 2:39 marathoner, he’s coached thousands of runners to faster finishing times and fewer injuries with his results-oriented coaching philosophy. Follow him on Instagram or YouTube.