Ten ways to avoid running injuries

Published on
March 13, 2023
It’s often said that the toughest part of a marathon is the training rather than the event itself – and that certainly holds true when it comes to injury risk....

How to feel fit and healthy on the Start Line

It’s often said that the toughest part of a marathon is the training rather than the event itself – and that certainly holds true when it comes to injury risk.

Studies show that more than a third of runners sustain injuries while preparing for their 26.2 miles. Many of these injuries result from overuse (doing too much) or misuse (not doing it right). But that’s good news, because it means that, with the right approach to training, these errors can be avoided, maximising your chances of making it to the Start Line in one piece.

1. Ease in gently

By far the most common mistake among first-time marathoners (and new runners in general) is trying to achieve too much, too soon – both in terms of the overall volume of running and the rate of progression. If you’re new to running (or a ‘rusty’ returner to the sport), aim to run on just three non-consecutive days of the week to begin with. Your runs should not feel like near-death experiences – run at a pace that feels comfortable and that gets you a little breathless and warm. If you need to mix bouts of walking and running, no problem.

2. Make haste slowly

Once this starts feeling more manageable, you can gradually make your training more challenging by adding what coaches call ‘progressive overload’. The ‘overload’ is the training itself and ‘progressive’ means only increasing it in small doses.

There are three options, and you can remember them with the acronym FIT:

  • F is for frequency and refers to how often you run
  • I is for intensity and is related to how hard you run
  • T is for time, ie how long you run for (or how many miles you cover)

Work on increasing the time and frequency before worrying about intensity. The general rule is to increase your weekly mileage by no more than 10 per cent at a time – but don’t feel you have to raise your mileage every week. Listen to your body.

3. Build in rest and relaxation

It is during rest, not running, that your body adapts to your training, becoming fitter and stronger. If you don’t rest enough, then you’ll never allow your body to adapt fully and reap the full benefits of your training. That’s why it is best to schedule in rest days – and recovery weeks – from the outset.

Structure your training using the ‘hard-easy rule’, which means following your most challenging runs with either rest days or easy runs, so they are spaced out through the week.

By ‘challenging’, I mean anything faster than your target-race pace (so tempo runs, intervals, hills, speedwork), as well as your long runs, where the challenge comes from the duration, not the intensity.

You also need to take regular recovery weeks (every three to five weeks), where you scale back your mileage. I often do this by omitting the long run or reducing the volume of higher-intensity sessions. These cutback weeks allow you to recuperate physically and mentally.

4. Watch your running technique

No one ever teaches us how to run – we just put one foot in front of the other and assume we’re doing it right. But there’s a growing interest in the issue of running technique or ‘form’ and a belief that good form can not only enhance performance, but reduce the risk of injury.

Visualise yourself running tall (rather than sinking into your pelvis) with an upright posture, but stay relaxed and fluid.

Keep your rhythm (cadence) fast and light and drive forward with your knees and back with your elbows.

I do a mental ‘body scan’ to check my form every mile or so when running. Are my shoulders hunched? Has my leg lift become a shuffle? Are my feet landing heavily? Even if you start off running with good technique, it’s likely to deteriorate as you tire. A body scan will help you maintain awareness and make any necessary adjustments.

5. Mix up your training

Not every session you do in your marathon build-up has to be running. Including some cross-training, such as cycling, rowing or gym training, is wise, especially if you’re a running newbie or injury prone. It enables you to achieve a high volume of training without overdoing things.

To make cross-training sessions count, have a purpose in mind before you start and structure the session in the same way you would a run. For example, you could replace a long run with a long bike ride, a recovery run with a gentle swim or a hill session with a workout on the step machine

6. Stay strong

The one non-running activity that should be in every runner’s programme is strength training. I’m not talking about lugging heavy weights around the gym, but simple body-weight exercises to build strength and resilience in your muscles and joints and improve core stability – see our top five stretches for runners for a good place to start.

Strength training adds balance to your programme and can help offset the potential damage of the repetitive, one-directional and high-impact nature of distance running. Class-based activities like Pilates, circuit training and Body Pump also fit the bill.

7. Warm up and cool down

Numerous studies have shown that a warm-up reduces the risk of muscle tears and joint injuries – imagine what would happen if you put an elastic band in the freezer and then tried to stretch it. Well, muscles are the same – they move better when they’re warm and pliable.

To warm up effectively, precede each run with a very easy jog or brisk walk, incorporating some gentle moves – such as bringing your knees to your chest, or heels to your bottom, rolling your shoulders, rising up onto your toes – to mobilise your joints. Continue for a few minutes, gradually extending your range of motion and adding some running-specific movements.

Do not stop to stretch before you run – save your stretching regime for afterwards. This helps muscles return to their ‘resting’ length, maintaining range of motion and flexibility. Hold each stretch for 20 to 30 seconds at the point where it feels mildly uncomfortable (rather than painful) and aim to breathe freely

8. Run off-road

Just as variety is essential when it comes to types of training, it’s also important in terms of where you run. On a flat, asphalt road, impact forces are channelled through exactly the same muscles, bones and joints with every step.

Conversely, on a trail there are varying levels of unevenness, gradient and a mix of softer and firmer areas. Every footstrike is subtly different from the last.

Given that many marathons take place on the road, you should log some miles on asphalt, but I recommend running ‘off-road’ at least half the time. That doesn’t have to mean a trip to the countryside – even running on a playing field or gravel path will offer variety. You can also add the treadmill and the athletics track to your terrain ‘menu’.

9. Find the right running shoes

There are more shoe brands and models around than ever before, which can make it tricky to find the right pair for you. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ answer, so the key is to visit a specialist store with a wide range and try lots of different pairs.

A University of Calgary study saw runners rate shoes from most to least comfortable, then assessed their performance on a treadmill – perhaps unsurprisingly the runners fared best in the shoes they’d ranked most comfortable.

But bear in mind no single shoe is likely to meet all your needs. Having two or more pairs on the go at a time is a good way to vary the stresses of footstrike. You could have a pair for off-road and one for road, or one for heavy mileage and a lightweight pair for speedwork and shorter races, for example.

10. Listen to your body

I can’t promise you’ll never feel sore or achy during marathon training. The key is distinguishing good pain, which shows you worked hard (and successfully overloaded your body), with bad pain, which shows you did something too hard, for too long, or did it badly. That’s why it is so important to listen to your body.

If you have pain that causes a change in your running technique, lingers more than a day or two, or goes away between runs but comes back every time you run, or immediately after, you need to take a couple of days off running (maintain pain-free cross-training). Keep the sore area gently mobile and use ice to help reduce any inflammation.

If there’s no improvement, consult your doctor or, ideally, a sports injuries specialist, such as a physiotherapist or osteopath, for diagnosis and advice. The sooner you know what you’re dealing with, the sooner you can take the necessary steps to heal your injury, prevent it coming back and speed up your return to training.

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