Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Jason Fitzgerald.
The percentage of runners that get hurt every year is staggering. Some studies even put that number at an eyebrow-raising 74% — or in other words, higher than professional football.
Browse any running message board and the most passionate posts are cries for help from frustrated runners with their latest overuse injury. Ask a veteran of the sport about their injury history and they’ll likely rattle off a laundry list of every conceivable malady possible:
- IT band syndrome
- Plantar fasciitis
- Achilles tendinopathy
- Patellofemoral pain syndrome
- Compartment syndrome
This begs the question: why are runners so good at getting hurt? If we have evolved to run (as many have suggested), then why is the injury rate so alarmingly high? Can you imagine a deer straining its hamstring galloping through the woods? Or a shark getting tendinitis in its fin from hunting a seal?
Of course not! It’s outrageous to even think about. Yet it happens to humans when we run relatively pedestrian distances at comfortable paces.
The answer, it seems, is a combination of how we run and the effects of our modern lifestyle. When you adjust for these issues and correct your training, you’ll dramatically reduce your injury rate.
I learned this the hard way. For nearly seven years, my training was constantly interrupted by plantar fasciitis, IT band syndrome, and chronic Achilles tendinopathy that prevented me from running to my potential. It was frustrating. I didn’t know what to do.
But once I did enough research and learned through trial and error, I was able to escape my own personal injury cycle. After just six months of healthy running, I made my college’s varsity cross country team and ran an enormous personal best over 8 kilometers (about 5 miles). And since 2009, I haven’t had a single major injury. With so much healthy running, I’ve been able to run more than ever and improve my marathon to 2:39:32 at the 2011 Philadelphia Marathon (Boston 2014, I’m coming for you!).
The training consistency that comes with injury-free running is the most powerful way to become a better runner. Once you crack the code of pain-free running, you’ll be able to run faster, build your consistency, and finally reach your potential.
Just imagine what you could accomplish if you stayed healthy for a full year (or more). The results can be incredible.
Today let’s look at some running “best practices” so that you can implement smarter training. I know if you put this coaching advice into practice, you’ll see dramatic results.
Runners Need to be Strong
A common misconception is that distance runners don’t need strength training. After all, the upper body isn’t used at all and running works the legs…right? Wrong.
If you don’t complete regular strength work, you’re on the fast track to injury. While the entire topic of “injury prevention” includes much more than just strength exercises, it’s a big part of the puzzle. Most runners that can’t string together a few months of consistent training because of chronic injuries don’t do any strength work.
An analogy that’s useful here is comparing a car’s engine and its chassis. What would happen if you put a Lamborghini engine into a Geo Prizm frame? That powerful engine would tear the chassis apart — it’s just too powerful.
The same thing will happen if your aerobic fitness outpaces your structural ability to withstand the stress of running long and fast. Your cardiovascular system might be up to the task of running 10 miles, but can your muscles, tendons, and ligaments hold up? You better be strong!
Injury prevention is but one reason to start regular strength exercises. It will also help you become a more efficient runner so you lose less energy and ultimately run faster.
A couple classic weight exercises are the most helpful for runners: dead lifts and squats. These compound, multi-joint movements build strength while also activating the stabilizing muscles. Core workouts (like this one) are also helpful and should be done on days you’re not in the gym. More advanced runners — or those looking for a challenge — can do single-leg exercises that build even more stability, balance, and proprioception (spacial awareness of your body). After all, running is simply a series of very coordinated hops from one foot to the other.
In terms of scheduling, two days a week in the gym working on squats, dead lifts, and single-leg exercises (in addition to upper-body exercises like pull ups, bench press, military press, etc.) is all you need. But after each run it’s most beneficial to do at least 10 minutes of basic bodyweight work like the core routine mentioned above.
Many of the chronic aches and pains runners experience are the result of no strength work and can be easily avoided (or at least minimized) by exercising more muscles than just the heart.
Respect the Recovery Process
Mention the term “recovery” and most runners think of ice baths, compression socks, and trigger point massage. And while these tools can be helpful to facilitate recovery, they’re just ways to manage existing damage. They’re not the most effective ways to enhance recovery because they’re reactive.
Proactive recovery methods are much more helpful — they ensure you don’t have too much damage in the first place. Remember that every hard workout you do is a stress that initially damages your body. Only when you recover and adapt do you truly become a stronger, faster, and more resilient runner.
You can see this at work in the Stress-Adaptation Cycle:
Instead of relying on your foam roller and an occasional ice bath, proactive recovery works within this cycle and ensures you only do workouts that are appropriate to your fitness level.
Reading about elite athlete’s workouts in running magazines is fun, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should copy them! Every fast workout that you run should be achievable, realistic, and within your abilities. “Stretch workouts” that leave you sore for days spike your injury risk and compromise the recovery process. If you run too hard or too long your body will have difficulty recovering from and adapting to the workout.
Even if you are running workouts that are appropriate to your fitness level, you may find that on some days, you just don’t have it. So do you press on and attempt to complete the workout if you’re feeling overly sore, exhausted, or have a niggling pain? Of course not!
Flexibility to modify a workout (what I like to call a “Plan B Workout,” or an easier version of the run you had planned), cut it short, or even take the entire day off is critical to staying healthy. No matter how well your training program is written, you’ll need to alter some workouts on the fly.
To determine if you shouldn’t run or take an easier day, follow these three simple rules:
- If you’re experiencing a sharp or stabbing pain, you shouldn’t run at all. That kind of pain means you’re doing additional damage.
- If you have a moderate amount of dull or achy soreness, you can run but it’s best to make your planned run easier.
- If the level of soreness is light or you’re just experiencing general fatigue, press on with your planned workout.
After all, the best workout for you today is just what your body needs. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s what’s written on your plan.
Is Your Running Boring?
You can imagine that as a full-time coach, I write a lot of custom training plans for runners training for races as varied as military fitness tests, obstacle races, ultramarathons, and standard road race distances of 5k to the marathon. And after reviewing the training of almost a thousand runners, I’ve noticed a clear pattern: most people’s running is so boring.
They do the same distances, at the same paces, in the same shoes, on the same route, while training for the same race. They do the same static stretches all the time and keep their race goals the same from year to year.
With that kind of repetition, no wonder why repetitive overuse injuries are so common!
Variation is a critical element in my training philosophy. While a structured approach to training yields the best race results, variation is often in the details — small changes to paces, running surface and terrain, elevation, shoe rotations, and types of workouts are all critical to reducing the repetitive stress of running.
You’ve probably met the runner who is perpetually training for a marathon. Two or three times a year they run 26.2 miles but always seem to run the same finish times (and are often injured). The problem of course is a lack of training variety — if you’re always running marathon workouts, you’re neglecting other types of valuable workouts and subjecting your body to a very similar type of stress week after week.
To introduce more variety into your training and reduce the repetitive nature of running follow these steps:
- Rotate two or more pairs of shoes to subtly alter your biomechanics and the stress experienced by your feet and lower legs (more on this below).
- Run workouts that include paces of max effort sprinting to very easy, comfortable runs.
- Incorporate a strength routine that includes a variety of exercises to correct imbalances.
- Get off the roads and sidewalk to run trails and more hills.
These changes to your training program may seem insignificant, but over time they alter how stress is applied to your body. Your biomechanics are very different at full speed than they are at your 5k pace and even your very easy pace. Stride angle, foot strike, and range of motion are just three examples of what changes as you run faster.
You also run differently in cushioned running shoes than you do in more minimalist shoes. Some shoes have a higher heel, a firmer sole, and more support. Rotating a more minimalist shoe can help you build more strength and alter the way your foot interacts with the ground. But just like interval workouts or long runs, minimalist shoes are a training tool to accomplish a specific goal (foot strength and reinforcing proper running form). You don’t have to rely on them for all your workouts.
Hills, uneven terrain, and technical trails modify your stride pattern as well (in addition to providing a softer surface with less impact force). Dodging debris and moving over elevation changes reduces the repetitive nature of running that you’d normally experience on the roads.
Put together, these training changes help reduce repetition and improve your ability to run longer with fewer injuries.
Do You Know How to Run?
Most runners never learn how to run. They’re not taught how to execute proper form. And that’s a shame because running is not a basic movement — it’s a highly technical series of coordinated steps (or hops, actually).
Before I start, this is important: if you’re an intermediate or advanced runner (high mileage or someone who’s been running for years), it’s not a good idea to actively change your form. Studies have shown that experienced runners who try to significantly change their running form actually decrease their running economy. That’s right — they get less efficient.
So if you’re not very prone to injuries and your form is okay, then stick with what already works.
Indeed, the best way to improve your form is to run often. Your body naturally finds its most optimal form when you run very frequently. So get out there and run tall, don’t over-stride, and keep your cadence up. Your form will largely take care of itself, but I do have some general tips for you to speed up the process:
Increase your cadence. Cadence is the number of steps you take per minute. Most expert runners think 180 steps per minute (for both feet) is the holy grail of running cadence, but there’s really no magic number.
Ideally, your cadence should be at least 170 steps per minute when you’re running at a comfortable pace. It will increase once you start running faster — that’s normal. But if you’re under 170, try increasing it by about 5% every few weeks.
Recent research has shown that a higher cadence reduces impact shock on your legs, improves running economy (or your efficiency), and reduces your injury risk.
Foot strike at the right time. New runners have a tendency to “reach” out with their feet to take a longer stride. What happens is that the foot almost always heel strikes aggressively out in front of your body. You want to avoid this at all costs!
When your foot comes down and makes contact with the ground, it should be underneath your body, rather than significantly in front of it. But many beginners focus on which part of the foot strikes instead, which is not as important as landing underneath your body. There are successful runners who strike the ground with their heel, midfoot, and forefoot — all work well! As long as your cadence is above about 170 and you’re striking the ground underneath your hips, you don’t have to worry about foot strike.
As you’re running, a good mental cue is to think that you’re just “putting your foot down” underneath your body. There’s no reaching or stretching your leg out in front of you.
Run tall. This helps improve your posture so you’re not slouching. Many runners think they need a forward lean (and this is true) but they accomplish this by leaning at the waist. Instead, the body should be in a slight forward lean from the ankles. This will happen naturally as you focus on running with a tall, straight back.
A helpful mental cue that will improve your posture is to pretend there’s a string attached to the top of your head. Imagine that someone is pulling the string straight up in the air — pulling your back straight into a more athletic posture.
Once you incorporate these changes into your running form, you’ll feel a lot more comfortable and your injury risk is going to plummet.
Putting These Principles Into Action
The majority of recreational runners don’t follow these training suggestions — and they hit performance plateaus and experience chronic injuries.
But when you start preparing for your next goal race, implement regular strength work, a few running form upgrades, a conservative workout schedule that prioritizes recovery, and more training variety. Take a long-term approach and respect the process of training rather than chasing a new weekly mileage record or a workout personal record.
And I know you’ll not only stay healthy, you’ll probably race a helluva lot faster too.
Listen to our podcast with Jason on the myths and truths of distance running:
Jason Fitzgerald is a 2:39 marathoner and USA Track & Field certified coach. Get the latest training tips at Strength Running – or sign up for two free presentations on injury prevention, misconceptions, and Q&A to help you stay healthy.