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With the annual injury rate among runners somewhere between 50-70%, staying healthy is a top priority for those with ambitious goals. Running is a contact sport, with each foot strike creating an impact force 2-5 times your body weight that travels through your legs.
To stay healthy, we must build resilience to these impact forces and train to mitigate this risk. If you keep getting injured, follow these ten commandments of injury prevention for runners.
1. Run Easy Most of the Time
Most of your weekly mileage (80-90%) should be at an easy effort. Instead of relying on your watch for an exact “easy pace,” it’s more productive to focus on perceived effort.
Easy running should be comfortable, controlled, and conversational. Let the pace come to you rather than pushing the pace to what you think it should be. That’s because it varies based on your fatigue levels, caffeine intake, life stress, and other factors.
2. Warm Up Before Every Run
A dynamic warm-up before running helps metabolically prime you for exercise. It increases respiration, heart rate, and cellular activity. It expands capillaries, improves range of motion, and lubricates joints.
But the warm-up process doesn’t end with a series of flexibility exercises. The first 1-2 miles (2-3K) of your run should also be extra easy to help you ease into your normal pace and become fully warmed up.
3. Increase Workload Gradually
Many runners understand that they shouldn’t increase their weekly mileage too quickly. (I recommend no more than 10% every two weeks.) But that’s only half the equation: we also must take care to gradually increase training intensity.
From easy run pacing to workout pacing and the frequency of workouts, runners must increase every variable gradually and methodically. Start with an easy workout and gradually progress to more challenging sessions when you’re ready.
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4. Fix Form Red Flags
While it’s true that modifying your running technique can often make your economy and efficiency worse, there are certain red flags to watch out for.
Follow these three principles of sound form: first, run tall with good posture. Second, land with your foot underneath your center of mass as best as you can. And third, increase your cadence to 170+ steps per minute (160+ if your easy pace is slower than 10:00 minutes per mile). One easy way to count your cadence is to simply count for fifteen seconds, then quadruple it.
5. Get Strong
Strength training is not cross-training for runners, it’s simply part of the necessary training to reach your potential. Get consistent with runner-specific core and strength routines completed after each of your runs. They’ll help you get stronger and better able to withstand the impact forces of running.
Ryan Wooderson, owner of Long Run Physiotherapy & Performance in Denver, Colorado, knows the value of strength training. He says that strength training “improves your body’s capacity to tolerate the demands of running. The higher the load tolerance, or capacity, of our bodies, the less likely we are to become injured.”
6. Get Training Density Right
Training density refers to how much quality running (either distance or intensity) is condensed into a certain time period. Ideally, our hard days should be mostly evenly spaced out to allow for sufficient recovery.
If you’re running one fast workout and a long run per week, a sound schedule would include 2-3 days of easier running in between these quality runs, to ensure you’re properly recovered and have the time to adapt to these training sessions.
7. Embrace Variety
Running injuries are technically “repetitive stress injuries,” so it’s critical that we reduce the repetitive stress of running. But because running is inherently a repetitive sport, we have to be more strategic.
We can vary our distance, pace, terrain, shoes, workouts, and even the types of races that we train for. These variables add nuance to our training, force our bodies to adapt to a range of different stimuli, and reduce the repetitive nature of running.
8. Sleep Enough
Sleep is the top recovery tool at our disposal – more important than foam rollers, icing, or any supplement. It is during sleep that our bodies repair, recover, and adapt to our training, so we must put as much emphasis on it as we do our workouts.
Most runners are training at a level that would make the average person incredulous. That means we need more sleep than the average person. Aim to get at least eight hours every night, but preferably more if you’re training heavily. And if you can take a nap on particularly challenging days, even better.
9. Fuel Well
Proper fueling – both with nutrient dense foods but also simply enough total calories – can prevent many maladies that affect runners. Bone injuries like stress fractures and reactions, especially in women, are more prevalent in athletes who are chronically under fuel. The health of your bones depends on eating enough!
RED-S, under-performance, and excess fatigue can also be the result of insufficient fueling. These issues contribute to injuries when technique suffers due to fatigue. Those inefficient movement patterns at the end of hard efforts can result in overuse injuries.
10. Be Patient and Flexible
Running is a long-term sport, so it’s best to take the long view. Adaptation takes months and years, rather than days and weeks. We often overestimate what our bodies can do in the short-term but under-estimate what our bodies can do in the long-term.
Wooderson agrees, noting, “Most running injuries occur from doing too much, too quickly, too soon on top of bodies that are undertrained. Having a coach is the best way to develop a plan that is tailored to you. Executing an individualized, progressive plan is one of the best ways to stay healthy.”
Even though injuries are common in the endurance running community, we can dramatically reduce our likelihood of getting hurt by following these injury prevention commandments. And if you do, not only will you be healthier and able to train more, but you’ll also be able to go on more running adventures and run faster races!