Jason Fitzgerald is a 2:39 marathoner and USA Track & Field certified coach.
Despite the fact that runners aren’t repeatedly tackled and buried under piles of bodies and equipment, the numbers tell us that they're hurt almost as frequently as pro football players. But why are roughly 56 percent of runners nursing injuries each year? The answer is simple: Most runners just don’t train properly. Perhaps because running is a straightforward, natural movement, many people don't think it requires instruction or attention to technique. But just like a deadlift or football tackle, running properly is a skill that has to be learned. Running fast or far without decent instruction increases risk of injury.
Consistent, injury-free running is what I call the “secret sauce” of good training. With it comes happier running, better training, and faster finishes. Fortunately even novice runners can learn how to structure their training to prevent injury. After working with thousands of runners, I’ve learned that there are three main ways to stay healthy, and the best part is that they're all super easy to implement.
Stay Healthy for the Long Run — Your Action Plan
1. Don’t be boring. Most running injuries are caused by repetitive stress, or repeated use of the same part of the body. When training plans lack variety, injury risk increases because the athlete is taxing the same part of the body in the same way over and over. As a coach, I review runners’ training programs every single day. And after looking over nearly a thousand plans, I’ve noticed that most training is boring. I see the same distances run at the same paces, over the same loop, in the same shoes.
Cut your injury risk and increase the likelihood of becoming a runner for life by introducing more variety into your routine. For example:
- Do more trail running. The frequent turns, elevation changes, and uneven terrain force you to subtly alter your stride.
- Rock some new kicks. When you rotate between two or three different pairs of shoes, each pair will slightly change your biomechanics (like head position, stride length, and how your arms move when you run), which helps reduce repetitive stress.
- Pick up (and slow down) the pace. Be sure to incorporate a variety of paces into your weekly training. Your training plan should include everything from slow recovery runs to maximum intensity sprints.
- Start strength training. A variety of strength exercises will correct imbalances and help you get stronger.
2. Practice proactive recovery — and don't push it. Most runners consider recovery to be a reactive process: It’s the ice baths, self-myofascial release, and compression socks that you use after you already feel sore. But proactive recovery methods are even more effective at reducing injuries by ensuring you don’t inflict too much damage in the first place. Practice proactive recovery by adjusting your workouts based on how you’re feeling day-to-day. Sometimes you might need to take a day off, cut your mileage, or slow down the pace. Remember: All of your workouts should be right for your fitness level and how you’re feeling that day.
- Know thyself. (Or, at least know your level of fatigue or pain.) You can figure out whether fatigue is creeping up on you by keeping an eye on your heart rate, which is done by checking your pulse. If you feel low-level fatigue or just light soreness, continue with your planned workout. If you feel moderately achy, sore, or tired, you can still run, but make your run easier than planned by going slower or shorter.
- Don't run from the pain. Never, ever run through sharp, stabbing pain. It could turn a nagging ache into a more serious injury.
- Avoid the "three too’s:" (Too much, too soon, too fast.) Every workout and long run should be achievable and within your current abilities. Going through with a workout that’s too fast — or too long — compromises the recovery process.
3. Perfect your form. So if running is a skill, how do you do it properly? Good running technique is more important than you think. Fortunately, correcting poor form can be done with just a few small adjustments.
- Count your steps. Determine your cadence (the number of steps you take per minute with both feet). Ideally you should take more than 170 steps per minute; any slower and you’re putting too much stress on your legs. If you’re taking fewer than 170 steps per minute, focus on taking quicker, shorter steps to increase your cadence. This will reduce over-striding, aggressive heel-striking, and the amount of stress your legs endure.
- Avoid over-striding. Focus on your feet landing underneath your hips. Too many runners “reach out” with their feet to take longer strides but end up over-striding and landing hard on their heels. Instead, land underneath your center of mass. The mental cue to “just put your foot down underneath you” will help reinforce this principle of good running form.
- Stand-up tall. Slouching isn’t good at your computer and it sure wreaks havoc on your running form. Pretend there’s a string attached to your head pulling it up to the sky.This cue helps prevent leaning forward from the hips and reinforces upright posture, leading to a more efficient running form.
When these principles of sound injury prevention are combined, you’ll be able to train more consistently and won’t have to miss a single race. Train smart and stay healthy!
What are your go-to tips and tricks to staying healthy as you train? Share in the comments below.