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