Toughen Your Running Bod Against Injury
The toll of running adds up fast. Fight back with these fixes for five common mistakes.
Your sister had shin splints last year. Your marathon-obsessed roommate’s been complaining about his knees…again. And you? You’re starting to wonder whether that subtle ankle pain you’re having on even slow jogs is a BFD in disguise.
We hate to call you a statistic, but a whopping 46 percent of runners who logged an average of just over 9 miles a week reported some kind of injury over the course of a year, according to a recent University of Gothenburg study of 200-plus recreational runners. Knee injuries accounted for 27 percent of the issues, 25 percent struck the calf or Achilles tendon, and 20 percent affected the ankle and foot.
“The average runner has to negotiate three to five times their body weight with each foot strike.”
“The average runner has to negotiate three to five times their body weight with each foot strike,” explains David McHenry, a lead physical therapist and strength coach to Nike elite athletes. “If they’re taking up to 90 foot strikes per foot per minute over the course of their run, that’s an incredible amount of repetitive stress on the body."
You might think you’re an ace runner — and, hell, you probably are — but no matter how seasoned your stride, you can’t change the physics of your sport. You can, however, avoid making the mistakes below so you’re more likely to stay on the right side of that stat and protect your body for the long run (pun intended).
1. You do too much too fast.
Whenever you finish a great run, it’s easy to talk yourself into pushing your limits on the next one. Enjoy the endorphins, but remember that at any given moment, “your muscles, bones and joints have a certain degree of load capacity, or the amount of impact they’re able to absorb,” says Yera Patel, a physical therapist at the NYU Langone Health Sports Performance Center. Increase the volume (whether that’s how often you run or how many miles you run per week) or intensity of your training too quickly, and you also increase your likelihood of getting hurt, she says.
Experts agree gradual training increases are the gold standard in running. Maintaining an acute-to-chronic workload ratio — how much you ran this week versus how much you ran each week over the past four weeks — of between 0.8 to 1.3 should be a solid way to lower injury risk, according to research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. Let’s do the math together: If you ran an average of 10 miles each week over the past four weeks and felt good, running up to 13 miles the following week would be within that right-for-you range.
2. You’re running through pain.
Can we retire “no pain, no gain” for good, please? Running isn’t exactly a comfortable sport, and it can sometimes be hard to tell the difference between normal training soreness that’ll go away and a potential injury that could snowball into a legit one. Runners tend to write off niggles or nagging aches, but ignoring pain in the short term can put you out of the game for months, says Patel.
A few red flags: “Pain bad enough that it’s changing your mechanics, pain that hasn’t gotten better within three or four days after a run, and/or pain that gets incrementally worse over the course of a run,” says McHenry. In any of those cases, you should see a specialist who can help you figure out what’s going on and develop a management plan to keep you injury-free.
3. You don’t even lift, bro.
Runners need a certain degree of stability and strength to run safely and efficiently, says Patel. “Our muscles act as dynamic stabilizers, absorbing shock,” she explains. “The stronger they are, the less impact there will be on your individual joints.”
Strength training has not only been linked to reduced injury risk since the ’80s (so, yeah, you can trust it), it’s also been shown to improve running performance. To get those results, you need to do resistance exercises (weights) as well as plyometric ones (explosive jumping movements), says Patel. Aim for two to three strength sessions per week, involving two to four lower-body exercises (weighted squats, deadlifts, steps-ups, lunges) plus plyometric movements (squat jumps, speed skaters) and short sprints. This program can boost your running economy, or how far and fast you can run on a given amount of energy, a meta-analysis of research published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found.
4. Your foam roller is gathering dust.
Low-intensity mobility work, or training your ability to move through a normal range of motion at a joint, is easy to neglect because it’s not exactly fun or sexy, and it doesn’t feel like you’re working that hard or accomplishing much, says McHenry. But it’s crucial to keep you on your A game.
“If you don’t have the range of motion to be able to run with a fluid stride, that’s going to increase your likelihood of injury because your body is working against internal restraints,” he explains. McHenry says he always starts runners’ strength and conditioning sessions with 15 to 20 minutes of mobility work — think foam rolling and dynamic movements like walk-outs, figure-four stretches and quad rockers (Google/YouTube them if needed). Even better? Do some mobility training on your rest days too.
5. You haven’t warmed up since ninth grade gym class.
Consider how tight your body is after you’ve been hunched over a computer all day. That’s not exactly conducive to a big, open stride, is it? Going straight into a run can lead to overstretching of muscles and lack of proper muscle recruitment, says Patel. Think about it this way: If primary movers (your glutes) aren’t engaged, secondary muscles (like your calves or hamstrings) have to pick up the slack, adding extra stress to your knee and ankle joints.
A warm-up doesn’t have to be a huge time commitment. Dynamic activation warm-ups —movement-based stretching versus static holds — help prep your body and recruit the right muscles before you start running, explains Patel. Doing a five-minute pre-run routine consisting of one set of 10 reps each of dynamic leg stretches (like lunges and lateral leg swings) can also help you run longer, a study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found. For those days when you absolutely do not have five extra minutes to do a proper warm-up, at least take the first five minutes of your run to ease into your cruising pace, whether that means starting with a fast walk or easy jog.
Now you know: The secret to running longevity isn’t clocking speedy paces or logging a certain number of miles. It’s doing everything you can off the road, trail or treadmill to make your runs feel just as good for your body as they do for your mind.
Words: Ashley Mateo
Illustration: Jon Krause