With spring’s warm weather just around the corner, many of us are ready to start running outdoors and leave cabin fever in our dust. But running injuries are very common, so it’s important to make sure you prepare properly—especially if it’s been a while since your last run or you’re new to the sport.
University Physical Therapy sports physical therapist Deidra D. Charity, PT, DPT, shares these 10 tips to help reduce the risk of common running injuries whether you are a recreational runner or training for a race,
1. Warm up appropriately.
Don’t just lace up your shoes and hit the ground running. Take a few minutes to warm up your muscles.
“A warmup is important to fine-tune your body,” Charity says. “Tailor each warmup to match the demands you will place on your body with each workout.”
For example, a warmup before doing a speed workout may include hops and skips to prepare you for the acceleration and power demands, but a less intense warmup is appropriate for a light jog.
Charity says dynamic, or movement-based, stretching is usually more effective than static stretching prior to physical activity. For example, a toy soldier stretch, where you lift your legs up toward your hands extended in front of you, is appropriate to do before a run. Whereas, the traditional standing hamstring stretch, where you reach down to touch your toes and hold the pose, may be better suited to do after your run.
If you have a body region that is a concern, such as tight hip flexors or low ankle mobility, focus on warming up those areas, Charity says.
2. Start small.
If you are new to running, it might be appropriate to start with a walk-run interval program, Charity says. There are many training guides and resources available online to help you form a plan; these can be helpful guides, but it’s important to be flexible with them.
“Running groups are also a great resource, as they offer a sense of community and accountability. Runners within them usually have diverse levels of experience and can help provide insight and motivation,” Charity says. “Having a community can make running more fun, which helps you stick with your training plan and make it more meaningful.”
If you have the resources, a running coach can also help you create a personalized training plan.
3. Increase mileage gradually.
One of the most common errors runners make is increasing their mileage too quickly, Charity says. The “10 percent rule” helps reduce large jumps in mileage. The rule advises runners to not increase their weekly mileage by more than 10 percent from the week before.
“Injury usually occurs when the load on one’s body (training load, mental stress, illness, etc.) exceeds the body’s capacity to manage the load,” Charity says. “Following the 10 percent rule helps runners increase their training load gradually.”
It’s also important to consider that the difficulty of the run—for example, if the terrain is flat or hilly, or the pace you ran—will influence the physical load of the run. A running coach or a physical therapist can help you assess whether your training plan is appropriate.
4. Get adequate sleep.
Sleep is one of the best things we can do to enhance performance, Charity says. She recommends getting seven to nine hours of shut-eye per night.
5. Treat food as fuel.
Eating a nutritious diet helps fuel your body for the demands of running.
“You want your plate to be colorful, with lots of vegetables,” Charity says. “A nutrient-rich diet should include protein and carbohydrates. Protein is the building block for muscles, and carbohydrates are a fuel source.” Unsaturated fats are also an important source of fuel.
She also suggests adjusting your diet as you progress into more difficult workouts.
“You want to make sure you replenish the calories you burn so you don’t end up running on empty. You don’t want to get into an energy deficit,” Charity says.
6. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.
Hydration is critical for optimizing performance. You should drink water before, during (depending on the length of the run) and after your runs to replace the fluids you lose from sweat, Charity says.
If you are training for a race, Charity recommends practicing the hydration strategy you intend to use during the race prior to race day.
7. Pay attention to your running form.
A common mistake runners make when it comes to running form is overstriding. This means that your foot is too far in front of you when you contact the ground. Overstriding places increased stress on the joints and muscles, which can lead to injury over time, Charity says.
Taking smaller strides and more frequent steps can lead to a more efficient run.
“It’s less work and impact on your body and better for your performance,” Charity says.
She recommends working with a physical therapist who can do a formal running gait analysis to optimize your form.
Cross-training, or performing exercise that is outside of your main sport or usual method of exercise, is critical to success and health with running.
Charity says adding strength training into your routine on days when you aren’t running can go a long way to improve your running performance. A full-body workout is ideal, but the core and lower body are the most important areas to strengthen for running. Aim to cross-train at least two days a week.
If you have mobility issues, stretching or practicing yoga can also be beneficial.
“Many people have mobility issues in the hips, knees or ankles. A physical therapist can help restore range of motion,” Charity says.
9. Listen to your body.
If you find yourself dealing with nagging pain, assess your training program and overall wellness (physical, mental, sleep health, etc.), Charity says.
“See if you can identify any spikes in your training load that contributed to the injury. Take time to rest if you need it, and try to take a more gradual approach to get back into your training,” Charity says.
It’s important not to let an injury linger for too long. If adjustments to your training aren’t working, consult with your physician or a physical therapist.
10. No one size fits all.
There is no consensus on the best ways to reduce the risk of running-related injuries. The human body is complex. What works for one person may not work for another person. It’s important that you adapt your training based on how you feel and how your body responds to those changes.
Looking for a primary care provider or a physical therapist? Find one near you.