Jason Fitzgerald is a 2:39 marathoner, USA Track & Field certified coach, and the founder of Strength Running where runners go to get faster and prevent injuries.
We get it. You want to get better at your sport while keeping running injuries at bay — but you’re busy. You don’t have time for an extra 30-minute strength session on top of your current training plan. And forget about that 20-minute head-to-toe flexibility “warm-up.” You’re just struggling just to get your runs in, period.
It’s true that a comprehensive injury prevention routine can be time consuming. In fact, many professional athletes devote hours every day to core exercises, cross-training and massage (among many other things), on top of their sport-specific training.
But keeping your body healthy doesn’t always need to be a time suck. In fact, some of the best techniques take little or no extra time at all. One of the secrets of the best runners is that they include injury prevention methods within their training routines. And usually, they focus on preventing problems from occurring in the first place.
Each of these three methods for preventing running injuries can be built into your current workout schedule — and won’t take much, if any, time at all.
The Busy Person’s Guide to Avoiding Running Injuries
1. Improve your running form.
Fixing your form is one of the simplest and most beneficial changes you can make to avoid injury. Bad form typically includes issues such as:
- Over-striding (your foot lands far in front of your body)
- Slouching or leaning from the waist
- Aggressive heel-striking (often a result of over-striding)
- Running at a slow cadence (fewer than 170 steps per minute)
Running with poor form will often contribute to overuse injuries because inefficiencies in your technique can result in excessive wear and tear on your body. Over many weeks and months, and hundreds of thousands of foot strikes, those little problems add up and increase your injury risk. Thankfully, improving your form requires no extra time investment!
The next time you’re running, make these four quick fixes:
- Maintain good posture by imagining there is a string attached to your head and someone is pulling it straight up toward the sky. This will prevent you from leaning forward and keep your back straight.
- Run gently to minimize impact forces. Listen to your footsteps: Do you hear a loud, slapping sound with every strike? If so, you need to run softer, which is only done through practice and repetition. If you can sneak up on a dog, you’re doing it right!
- Ensure that your feet are landing directly beneath your center of gravity (i.e., not in front of your body, which increases over-striding). Focus on putting your foot down underneath your body. You can find a local running store that offers gait analysis, but you can also improve your stride just by working on it on your own.
- Increase your cadence to about 170 to 180 steps per minute to reduce your injury risk. Run with a metronome app, like Run Tempo, to set a beat that you can match to your stride.
The surface you’re running on matters, too. For example, if you always run on the left side of a road that has been graded (slightly slanted) for water runoff, your body will eventually become imbalanced. Be mindful of this and try to run on even grades when possible (or varied grades, such as when trail running).
2. Don’t get too crazy with your training.
When it comes to injury prevention, Steve Magness, author of the Science of Running blog and coach to both professional runners and the cross-country team at the University of Houston, says athletes should avoid the “3 Too’s.”
“The biggest thing that runners can do prevent injuries is eliminate training mistakes,” Magness says. “Often, runners try to do too much, too soon, or change things too soon. They’re looking for ways to bump up their performance so they add mileage, intervals and speed before they’re ready.”
Instead, follow a smart running program that will have you build mileage and increase speed gradually. Try to adhere to the 10 Percent Rule (or even something less aggressive than that) if you’ve been struggling. The 10 Percent Rule simply states that you shouldn’t increase your mileage by more than 10 percent per week. However, there are exceptions to even this rule.
If something you’re doing is causing pain, stop or find a way to work around the issue. Magness adds, “Keep workouts and long runs proportional to what your body is ready for and what the rest of your training week looks like.”
Constantly dealing with chronic, recurring injuries? You may need to lower your expectations. If training for a marathon has become too painful, consider signing up for a half-marathon instead. You may even need to cut back on races, speed work and other high-intensity training. This will give you more time to focus on getting healthy so that you’re back to training at your peak soon.
3. Don’t wreck your recovery (or waste time).
By making some easy lifestyle changes, you can avoid undermining your recovery process. Be sure you’re on top of these three tactics to stay healthy while training.
- Avoid dehydration, which can delay recovery and increase your injury risk. When you’re dehydrated, your performance suffers and your form is often compromised. This extra strain can create inefficient movement patterns that are more likely to result in injuries.
- Eat enough protein to ensure your muscles can rebuild after a challenging workout or long run (and make sure you consume the right amount of carbohydrates for fuel beforehand, too).
- Take at least one day off per week and enjoy a vacation from running for at least a week, two to four times per year.
It’s also beneficial to avoid time-wasters that aren’t helping you stay healthy. “Static stretching is the number one time waster for most runners,” Magness says. “Stretching doesn’t do a whole heck of a lot.” Instead, of stretching, Magness advises completing the first mile of your run at a super easy, slower pace.
If you like to rev up your body before you hit the roads, try this warm-up routine, which integrates dynamic (not static) stretching and light strength work to prepare your body to run.
Implementing these simple changes can make a big difference to your running over time. But they aren’t a cure-all. If these three strategies don’t cut it, consider swapping out one weekly run for a strength workout or aerobic cross-training activity, like cycling. And if you continue to get hurt, you may want to talk to a coach who can evaluate your training and help you escape your chronic cycle of injuries, once and for all.