There is no one reason why runners get injured, but there is a pretty consistent interaction of factors that play a role in most running injuries. Factors commonly recognized include muscle weakness, inadequate flexibility, training errors, poor or incorrect running shoes, and poor or abnormal biomechanics.
Knowing how to train properly and safely is crucial to staying injury-free. Here are some ways you can stay injury-free.
Listen to Your Body
Most running injuries don’t erupt from nowhere and blindside you. They produce signals—aches, soreness, and persistent pain—but it’s up to you to listen to them and take appropriate action. Plain and simple: If something hurts, do not run. As soon as you start to feel an injury coming on, stop running and rest for a few days. Once the pain is completely gone, you can slowly resume running.
When you’ve got muscle aches or joint pains, there’s nothing better than rest, ice, compression, and elevation for immediate treatment. These measures can relieve pain, reduce swelling, and protect damaged tissues, all of which speed healing.
The only problem with RICE is that too many runners focus on the “I” while ignoring the “RCE.” Ice reduces inflammation, but to ice-and-run, ice-and-run, without giving the tissues enough time to heal, is a little like dieting every day until 6 p.m. and then pigging out.
Build Mileage Gradually
Probably the number one cause of running injuries is when runners do too much, too soon, too fast. The body needs time to adapt from training changes and jumps in mileage or intensity. Build your weekly training mileage by no more than 5 to 10 percent per week.
For example, if you follow the 5 percent rule and run 10 miles the first week, do just 10.5 miles the second week, and so on. If you are recovering from an injury or are brand new to running, it is best to stay close to the 5 percent limit or you’ll run the risk of injury or re-injury. More experienced runners who have no history of injuries can safely train closer to the 10 percent limit.
Stretching should be an important component to any runner’s routine. Runners tend to be tight in predictable areas (most notably the hamstrings and calf muscles) and in turn, they get injured in and around those areas.
Do not do static stretches (holding an elongated muscle in a fixed position for 30 seconds or longer) before running. Stretching is best done after a warm-up period of 10 to 15 minutes after your muscles are warm, or at the end of your workout.
An important note about stretching after long runs (longer than 15 miles): Do not stretch immediately following your run. Your muscles have hundreds of micro-tears in them and stretching them could turn some of these into macro-tears, causing significant damage. Instead, cool down, take a shower, eat a good meal and drink plenty of fluids. Then it is okay to stretch later in the day.
Use cross-training activities to supplement your running, improve your muscle balance, and keep you injury-free. Swimming, cycling, yoga, Pilates, elliptical training, and rowing will burn a lot of calories and improve your aerobic fitness, but be careful not to aggravate injury-prone areas. If you are injured, let pain be your guide on which activities are okay.
Run on a Level Surface
Another factor that could have a significant impact on running injuries is road camber. No doubt you always run on the left side of the road facing traffic. That’s good for safety reasons. But it also gives you a functional leg-length discrepancy, since your left foot hits the road lower on the slope than your right foot. You’re also placing your left foot on a slant that tends to limit healthy pronation, and your right foot in a position that encourages overpronation. And you’re doing this mile after mile, day after day, week after week, which could lead to hip injuries.
Wear Properly Fitted Shoes
Shoes are the most important piece of equipment that you need to run, so having a pair that fits you properly is crucial to your running success. There is no one shoe that is right for every runner and there is no shoe that is guaranteed to eliminate an injury.
To find the right shoe for your feet, go to a specialty running store. The best running stores will watch you run and analyze your gait and stride to put you in the proper shoe. As a general rule, shoes should be replaced every 300 to 500 miles (depending on your size, weight, foot strike, and shoe type). Keep a training log to keep track of your shoe mileage and be sure to replace them when you hit the 300 to 500 mile mark.