If you’re a long-distance runner, you’re probably no stranger to running injuries. Up to 90% of long-distance runners experience at least one running injury every year.
Recent research has found that the best predictors of running injuries are prior injury, body weight, gender, experience, running form and the amount of stress on your body (training load). Unfortunately, women tend to experience more running injuries than men due to their musculoskeletal structure. You can’t do anything to change risk factors like your gender, running experience and prior injuries, but you can do something about risk factors like your running form and training load.
Our society tends to want to achieve everything at the speed of Twitter. But the key to preventing running injuries as we run — to lose weight, improve fitness or just for fun — is to make changes gradually.
Variables such as running time, intensity, frequency and distance all contribute to the stress on your body, or training load. If loads are applied gradually to the body, tissues can respond and adapt favorably. Our tendons, ligaments, bones, joints, cartilage, vertebrae and discs can adapt and become stronger if we do not ask them to do too much too early.
If you are new to running, start off with walking, then progress to walking with short intervals of running — perhaps walking for five minutes and running for one minute, repeated several times. Gradually increase your running intervals until you can run continuously without pain. Start running alone or with other beginners, not with experienced runners who might unintentionally push you beyond what your body can handle. A few things happen if you run too fast, too early:
- You are more likely to get injured.
- You burn carbohydrates in preference to fat.
- You don’t recover as quickly as you would from slow, steady runs.
A simple way to make sure that you are not over-stressing your cardiovascular or musculoskeletal systems is called the talk test. You should aim to run hard enough that you feel that you are working, but not so hard that you cannot comfortably speak. If you are able to have an easy, comfortable conversation, you can probably increase the intensity a bit.
Monitoring your heart rate is another way to make sure that you are not running too fast and are burning fat calories. Make sure that your heart rate is below your maximum aerobic function heart rate (MAFHR). For generally healthy people, your MAFHR is 180 minus your age. So if you are 40, your MAFHR would be:
180 – 40 = 140
When you are running, you are less likely to over-train and you will burn more fat if you can keep your heart rate below your MAFHR.
Pain and “niggles” — slightly bothersome or irritating pain and soreness — are extremely common, but they should still be respected. These early warning signs might signal an impending injury. Many runners will take ibuprofen or other nonprescription non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) before running, but this is typically a bad habit. Instead, pay attention to your body’s signals:
- Yellow light: If you experience some minor pain that eventually improves during your workout, you can likely keep running as normal, but continue to play close attention to the pain.
- Red light: If you experience pain with running that gets worse during or after your run, pain when you sleep, or swelling or more severe pain, you should stop running. It might not be necessary to stop exercising altogether; cross-training may be an option.
When beginning to run or walk with running intervals, start with 3 or 4 days per week. Cross-train with other types of exercise that you enjoy, such as stretching, yoga, swimming, weight training, cycling or skating. These forms of exercise help you improve fitness and burn calories with less abrupt stress on your musculoskeletal system. If you focus too much on just running as a new runner, you run a high risk of exceeding your tissues’ capacity to adapt to the high loads, which all too often results in a running injury. Running will only help improve your fitness and aid weight loss if the running program is sustainable.
The main running form errors that have been linked with injury include overstriding, hip drop and crossover.
- Overstriding: This occurs when you extend your front leg too far forward.
- Running form tip: Try to land on a slightly bent knee with your foot touching down just a little in front of your hip. Think about propelling yourself from your glutes (butt), rather than pulling from the front of your thighs.
- Hip drop: This occurs when your hip tilts left or right. Your knees may fall inward, placing more stress on areas such as the knee and outside of the hip.
- Running form tip: Try to run tall with a level pelvis. Exercises to strengthen your hip abductors are recommended.
- Crossover: This occurs when your front leg crosses over your back foot. If your front foot crosses the midline of your body when it touches the ground, this is crossover. This can be hard on your shins (tibia bones), the iliotibial band, and the outside of the hip and knee.
Running form tip: Try taking smaller steps with your feet a little bit wider apart. Trying to run with more steps per minute (increased cadence) — approaching 180 steps per minute — is recommended. It may help to pretend that there is a line in between your feet you must not cross or that your legs must stay far enough apart to ride a bike.