This is the year of running for me. I ran my first half marathon this spring and will complete my third one this fall. I've reached new trail running goals, including a first and second place finish in recent races. In August, 11 other teammates and I will run the Hood To Coast relay, covering 200 miles in less than 36 hours. I've done fun runs, too, like the Krispy Kreme Challenge and the Warrior Dash. I'm loving every minute of this run-filled year, from the training to the races. The worst thing that could happen to me now is to be sidelined by an injury.
Yet it seems that every runner I know has dealt with a running related injury. There are lots of reasons why running can lead to injury, but I do believe is that you can avoid and prevent most running injuries if you train smart and set realistic goals. That is exactly how I've avoided injury despite increasing my mileage and speed and taking on greater challenges. It's not about luck—it's about leading with your noggin instead of your legs.
If you have goals of becoming a runner, completing a marathon, racing your way into smaller jeans, or even finishing that first 5K, this is a must-read for you. Here are the five training tips that have kept me running injury-free for years.
My 5 Rules for Running Injury-Free
Just Because You CAN Do Something Doesn't Mean You Should.
The last thing I like to hear is that a person who has essentially never ran is planning to run a half or full marathon in a matter of months. This is an injury waiting to happen, not to mention that it simply isn't safe or advisable for an inexperienced runner. I know that it seems as if everyone these days is running a marathon. And I know there are training plans that promise to take you from unfit to running 26.2 miles in four months. But just because you can do something does not mean you should. Seriously. Just because people can run that distance with very little training doesn’t mean it's good for their bodies. I firmly believe that one should only train for a marathon after several years of running. But even then, I don't personally believe that it's a healthy goal for every runner. An event like that (and the training it entails) is extremely taxing on the body. Plus, there is plenty of evidence that people who train for long endurance events can run into a host of problems that an average exerciser is unlikely to encounter: increased injury risk of overtraining, heart problems (in the most extreme cases), a weakened immune system, amenorrhea, stress fractures and more.
I ran for more than two years before I ever attempted a half marathon. And I have no plans to ever run a full marathon because I don't believe that it's healthy for my body, even if my body might be capable of it.
If It's Not Broken, Don't Fix It
Like everyone else, I read and adored Chris McDougall's book Born To Run, and was totally ready to hop on the barefoot running bandwagon after doing so. When I visited my local running store to try on some minimalist running shoes, I stopped myself before checking out. Sure, there may be some good theories and even some evidence that minimalist shoes or barefoot exercise may be better for us. But I'd also never been injured or hurt by wearing my cushy motion-controlled running shoes either. For all I know, my running shoes are absolutely perfect for me and switching to something else—no matter how highly touted—could be the start of problems. I decided that if it isn't broken, I'm not going to fix it. I'm sticking with my tried-and-true shoes until they no longer work for me. Then—and only then—will I change things up. (The respected ACE fitness organization agrees. After studying the effects of barefoot, Vibram (barefoot running) shoes, and traditional running shoes on recreational joggers, they advise, "If you aren’t experiencing chronic injuries while running, don’t quit with your [usual] shoes just yet")
(Side note: Getting a good pair of running shoes and replacing them before they get too worn out is another way to help decrease injury risk. I track the mileage I run in my shoes and replace them around 500 miles, which seems to work best for me. I also never wear them for any purpose other than running.)
The same thing applies to your training plan. Remember that what works for others might not work for you. If you run three times a week but then see a cool new training plan that says you should be running five days, stop and think a minute. Are two extra days really necessary? Can you achieve the same goals with your current frequency? Many half marathon training plans I saw recommended running four to six days per week. No, thanks! I still only run three times per week and I had no trouble crossing that finish line after training three days per week. As Coach Nancy always says, "We are all an experiment of one." When you find something that works for you, stick with it!
Don't Run Every Day
You probably know some old man or woman who runs five miles every morning and has been doing so for the past 60 years. But let me tell you, they are the exception to the rule. Yes, I think running in general can be good for your body. But like all good things, more isn't always better, and moderation is usually best. Running is a high-impact exercise, too much of which can be bad for the joints.
Even though I exercise or do something active pretty much every day, I never run more than four times a week, and I rarely run on two consecutive days. Most often, I run just three times per week. On the other days, I cross-train with low-impact exercises (like biking or Spinning) to help balance out my workouts. I also fit in core work like Pilates, and strength-training so that I'm helping achieve a balanced physique—not one that only runs. Doing too much of any one thing can cause imbalance and injury. Even runners need days off.
Be a Careful and Conservative Runner
I believe this is the number one reason I have never been injured. I'm conservative in my goals, in how much I run, and in my approach to running.
Let me put into perspective how I went from running a 5K to running a half marathon—and more importantly, the amount of time I allowed myself to train.
In spring 2008, I started running 1-2 times a week for about 30 minutes at a time. I already had a base level of aerobic fitness from other workouts, so running this distance was OK for me. I ran my first 5K (3.1 miles) in October 2008, but didn't do my second one until a year later.
That's right; I spent more than a year just acclimating to running, usually no more than 4-5 miles per workout. After about 18 months of running consistently, I trained for a 10K, ran a 15K a few months later, then finished a 10.6-mile race a few months after that. I ran my first half marathon almost two and a half years after I ran that first 5K—not four months later or even six months later. This is conservative training. It allows your body to really acclimate to running and the increased mileage versus trying to rush the process, which is what causes problems. Week to week and month to month, I still take a conservative approach to increasing mileage. I never run more than 5-10% further than the previous weeks, even if my body seems like it can handle it.
In addition, I'm careful as I run. I run outdoors all winter long (albeit very slowly). The only time I head indoors is when it's icy or the temperature is in the single digits. When I run on trails, I slow my speed dramatically so that I feel sure of my footing. I also wear shoes specific to trail running for even more grip and support. A careful runner is an injury-free runner!
Listen to Your Body
When you only give yourself a few months to train for a given race, you often end up forcing yourself to run through fatigue, pain and other signs of injury. An example of this would be a novice runner registering for a marathon that's just four months away and following a training plan that will literally take all 16 weeks to complete. By running more conservatively, say, giving yourself six months to train after you have already built up to running a quarter of that distance, you allow some padding into your training. That way, when you feel tired, sick or sore, you can rest as needed without botching your whole training plan or exacerbating a potential injury.
I run three times a week and have a general plan for how far I want to go each time. But some days I'm just tired or my legs feel like lead. So I go slower, don't run as far, or skip those days when I really feel like my body is telling me to go easy. I have never pushed through major fatigue or pain in order to keep training, and by giving myself plenty of lead time for an upcoming race, I've never had to throw in the towel either.
A Few Final Rules
But isn't it hard enough to commit to an exercise program without pain, injury or fatigue getting in your way? Be smart and safe, and running will be that much more enjoyable for you!
Here are a few related SparkPeople resources that will help you run safely and still reach your goals:
Quiz: Are You Ready to Start Running?
Safe and Effective "5K Your Way" Training Plans
SparkPeople's Running Center (everything else you need!)
Have you ever experienced a running injury that could have been prevented? Do you follow any of these injury-prevention rules?
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