The Lazy Runner’s Guide to Preventing Injuries

Note: This is a guest post from my friend Jason Fitzgerald from StrengthRunning.com.

photo courtesy lululemon athleticaAs a runner, you are 20 percent more likely to be injured next year than an NFL football player.

That’s right. Some estimates put the injury rate for distance runners at 75% per year. That’s 3 out of every 4 runners who get hurt every single year!

It’s amazing that runners continue to lace up and head out the door when their chances of getting hurt are so high. But they do. Visit any running message board and you’ll see the cries from injured runners:

  • Arch pain like a rock in my shoe!
  • From knee pain to shin splints?
  • Frustrated!
  • A year with this!

Sports like football or lacrosse typically cause more acute injuries from getting hit by other players. As runners, we’re lucky that we don’t have to deal with that. The occasional cut from a cross country spike is the worst impact injury I’ve encountered.

Our main problem is more insidious: self-inflicted overuse injuries. There’s nobody else to blame except ourselves because we so often run too far, too fast, too soon. Then we’re struck down by plantar fasciitis, runner’s knee, achilles tendonitis, or something worse like a stress fracture.

There are entire books devoted to preventing running injuries. For you lazy runners who want the maximum bang for the least amount of work, here’s your 3-step plan.

Becoming Injury-Proof

The best way to prevent running injuries is to stop running. But who wants to do that?! I don’t think anybody here, so we’ll do the next best thing.

Step 1: Correct imbalances

Your first strategy to prevent the imbalances and weaknesses that running can cause. So make sure your running form is as good as it can be. Poor form is really inefficient and puts a lot of extra stress on your muscles, bones, and tendons. Focus on:

  • Increasing your cadence to about 180 (that number isn’t set in stone and it depends on how fast you’re going)
  • Leaning from your ankles – no slouching!
  • Landing underneath your center of mass instead of “reaching” in front of your body. No over-striding!

Time to implement: no extra time! Just work on it while you’re out running. If you need a good example, watch this video of one of the greatest marathoners of all time run on a treadmill. It’s poetry in motion.

Step 2: Avoid overtraining

Next, you want to make sure you’re never running too much, too fast, too soon.

If you’re not excessively stressing your body, the likelihood of an injury is going to plummet. Instead of being tired and sore all the time, you’ll be refreshed and ready to train. Only you know when you’re tired and sore, so pay attention to your energy levels and how your legs feel.

Err on the side of caution when it comes to resting. A slightly under-trained runner is much better off than an over-trained or injured runner!

The common rule is to never increase your mileage by more than 10% per week. I have a slightly different view on mileage changes: you can rapidly increase your volume until you’re at your “baseline” mileage, then your increases should be in the 2-5% range.

Your baseline mileage is what you’re comfortable doing. It’s what your average running volume is per week for the last 3-4 months. This will vary widely per person, so get to know your body, what you’re used to, and what you can handle. Be cautious when you’re in uncharted mileage territory.

Time to implement: no extra time (in fact, you’ll probably save some time)!

Step 3: Increase flexibility and durability

Now let’s work some specific exercises into your training to help you stay healthy. You could spend 1-2 hours a day on prevention and rehabilitative work, but I’m assuming you have a life and want to spend your valuable time on other things that matter to you.

With only about 20 minutes of focused effort on the days that you run, you can get the vast majority of benefits without sacrificing hours of your precious free time. Done before you run, this extra work increases blood flow to your muscles, opening capillaries and speeding up your heart rate. It also increases your range of motion and prepares your body to run.

You’ll also just feel a lot better after you get into the routine of doing this stuff regularly. Little aches and pains won’t be as common and you’ll probably feel a lot less sluggish. I have suggested specific routines for the runners that I coach and all of them have told me they feel better and more energized on their runs. And very few of them get injured!

There are two (quick) parts to these routines:

First, do 5-10 minutes of flexibility exercises before you run:

  • Skipping
  • Lunges
  • Leg swings (front to back and side to side)
  • Mountain climbers

I developed a complete routine that I do before most of my runs simply called the Standard Warm-up. It includes about ten mobility and light strength exercises that bring your body from sedentary to ready to run. I never run without doing at least a few minutes of these exercises. I think it’s one of the reasons why I haven’t had a major injury in nearly three years.

Now on to the second part: After you finish running, spend 10-15 minutes doing body weight strength exercises and core work. No need to get too fancy, stick to the basics. I like:

  • Pushups
  • Planks
  • Squats
  • Lunges
  • Any ab work with a medicine ball

I do 2-3 sets of a routine I call Standard Core (I need a better naming system) a few times a week. One set takes about 5-7 minutes depending on how long you do each exercise. It’s a comprehensive core workout that’s specific for runners – highly recommended.

With these two small changes you’ll feel better during your runs because you’re more warmed up. You’ll have better overall strength, fatigue less often, and be a little more efficient. As far as I can tell, every runner is looking to feel better and get in better shape.

Looking for more? I have two extra pieces of advice for you if time isn’t an obstacle and you want to take extra precautions.

1. Hill sprints. These are definitely a little advanced so I don’t recommend them for very new runners. But if you’re comfortable running very fast in workouts, then give them a try. Instead of me explaining hill sprints, just read this article on Running Times. Author and Coach Brad Hudson details exactly how to do them to get all the benefits.

2. Sleep a lot! This isn’t even running-related, and it’s obvious, but sleeping more is highly underrated. You recover and adapt when you sleep, so getting more high-quality sleep is essential. If you’re training for a race, the typical 6-7 hours that most people get isn’t going to cut it. Aim for at least 8, but see how you feel by adding an extra 30 minutes to an hour of sleep to what you normally get every night.

These small investments in your general strength and flexibility will pay dividends as you make them a regular part of your training. Consistency is what makes good runners, so preventing injury and being able to run regularly can make you a much better runner!

Jason Fitzgerald is a 2:39 marathoner and coach at StrengthRunning.com, a community of runners who want to reach their potential. Join the Strength Running Team for access to the Runner’s Gear Bag – a collection of free ebooks, workouts, and exclusive content not on the blog.

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Comments

  1. Thanks for the good advice. Nothing particularly new to me, but I do have one question. You mentioned doing core work *after* the run. I used to do it like this, but a year or so ago I switched things around — I now do a 10-25min set of planks, crunches, push-ups etc. before a run, plus some leg swings and such just before I set off. Afterwards I do a set of leg-focused dynamic stretches etc.
    So, the question is: do you consider there being some advantage of doing the core work after the run rather than before the run?

  2. Hey Tuomas – you can switch it up; there’s no significant advantage to doing the strength work either before or after your run. My one caveat is that if it makes you a little more fatigued, I’d save it for after a long run or harder workout. You want to optimize your running after all.

  3. That NFL/Runner statisic is crazy! Thanks for these helpful tips.:)I find that stretching and strength training really helps. Although, I need to work on getting more sleep!!

  4. Thanks Matt,

    One thing that really helps me is to use the foam roller. As uncomfortable as it is I try to do several nights per week before bed followed by a quick ice bath-particularly after my long runs.

  5. I also want to add: Eat right (especially women).

    Alot of my stress fracture was due to my diet. I was eating but nearly enough. You don’t have to have an eating disorder to cause damage.

  6. wow. i just hopped over from facebook to get advice about my shins & this amazing post popped up!! thanks for the tips! i’m feeling super frustrated. i’m only doing the couch to 5k plan (week 5) & my shins are killing me after i run. so bad it hurts to touch them! this happened about 4 months ago & i just quit running until now. do you think shoes have something to do with it? i know i need to work on my core.
    what’s a reasonable amount of time to give my shins a rest before i start again? anyone know how to stretch to help my shins?
    anyways, thanks again. love this blog & all the inspiring runners out there!

  7. Great post!

    I can’t decide if the injury statistic is sad or ridiculous! I’m going to regret this if I get injured anytime soon, but I think if people follow your advice, along with eating well and listening to their own body, most injuries can be avoided.

    I ran from age 28 to 38 with only one small running related injury in the first few months of running because I made the typical new runners mistake of doing too much, too soon, too fast. After that, I read everything I could about running… and I started listening to my own body. Thankfully I had almost 10 years of injury-free running.

    Then my entire lower body was severely injured in a vehicle accident. All my doctors said running was a thing of my past. After dozens of surgeries and months of physical therapy over the next four years, I returned to running carefully listening to my body along the way!

    I’ve been back to running for 3 years now and have completed 3 half-marathons since April and feel great. I did the Philly half on Sunday … finishing it about the same time as you did the full :)
    Congrats on your great race, Jason!

    • Hey Janet, I’m glad to see you proved your doctor wrong! I once had a podiatrist tell me that the human body is not designed to run for more than 5 miles at a time… Congrats on your half this past Sunday – it was a good day for racing!

  8. As a trainer I see lots of people come to me hurt and banged up. I think the biggest thing is overuse like you mention.

    People are often in a hurry when it comes to weight loss or any goal and think the more the better.

    This will cause many problems.

  9. Good post. I agree with others that said that overuse is the big culprit for new beginners.

    Strength/core training is important, but I’ve felt like doing it on off days or before a workout is best. Your muscles are depleted of lots of fuel/nutrients after a long run and strength training can potentially cause damage due to overuse, no?

    • I’ve found the best thing to do after a long run is to refuel and then do either a LIGHT strength workout (no weights) or just mobility exercises. It’s a different type of “use” so over-using it isn’t likely a big problem. It usually helps with recovery actually!

  10. Good read Fitz, can I call you that? I am a longtime NMA follower and found Jason’s website a while back after deciding I wanted to take my running up a notch. From midpack running to an occasional competitive shot at the podium in local races. I have incorporated his warm up and core routines and really like how it feels. I expect good results from making them habitual. If you want to be a stronger, healthier runner, check out his website.

  11. Hill Sprints are great training for cross country runs, of which forest trails are part of the running route. Although I would not recommend this to newbie runners who just started off the block.

  12. Sorry for going a little offtrack. I have done some slope running (very similar to hill sprints) myself, and I feel that it trains a different set of muscles which may not be engaged in regular zero-gradient runs. This will help to reduce the chances of running injuries. Doing hill sprints will help you to cool down better after a regular run.

    Personally, I have served in the army and done some obstacle course as well. For me, I find that it was much more fun and challenging. It feels like you are in an action movie, running and executing techniques to clear the wall, gliding across the monkey bars, scaling the ropes, etc.

    It is important to keep your exercise varied, and fun as well. I find that the “fun” factor is what motivates me to run and exercise regularly, and to ensure I won’t feel bored and disenaged.

    Oh well, that’s my two-cents worth. Really want to thank Jason for the insightful tips =)

  13. Terence, I definitely agree. Varied training always produces better runners with less injuries. If it’s not fun, why do it?

  14. Then incidence of running injuries spiked dramatically after the introductioin of the modern super-cushioned running shoe that encourages horrible form and prominent heel strike (the photo with the story is a classic example of this). Learn to return to the natural human running form and these injuries become a thing of the past. Check out ChiRunning, POSE, or other methods out there now to help you unlearn the poor habits we have developed. You take lessons to play golf, tennis, football and other sports correctly, so why should running be any different. The difference if what you can do and how your body feels is amazing!

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