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The annual injury rate among runners can be as high as 75 percent depending on the source. Running, it seems, has an injury rate higher than contact sports like football. So it makes sense for runners to incorporate injury prevention strategies before a discomfort progresses into a real injury.
While everyone is unique, there are several prevention concepts that are useful for any type of runner. Whether you’re a new or veteran runner, healthy or currently struggling with an injury, now is the time to implement the strategies that will help you run consistently in the future.
Injury Prevention 101: What Works
Many runners are under the false assumption that training a lot will inevitably cause injuries. But that’s simply not the case (as long as all that training is structured appropriately).
In fact, it’s often the increase to higher training loads that causes injury, not the training load itself. In other words, how quickly you increase mileage, long run distances, and the overall intensity of your running is what really contributes to injury.
The lesson is to not allow yourself to become significantly detrained. Wild swings in mileage or the length and speed of your faster workouts should be avoided. Keep your training relatively consistent and your body won’t ever be overly stressed from rapid changes in workload.
Consistency and variability are opposite sides of the same coin. While consistency applies to your running over the long-term, variability is important in your daily and weekly workouts. Every run in your training plan should have a purpose. That means your pace will vary depending on if it’s a recovery run, a steady state run, an interval session, tempo workout, or a race pace workout.
In addition to pace, variability should take place in the terrain you run (e.g. hills vs. flat, road vs. trails) and also the types of workouts you perform. It’s also beneficial to rotate the routes you run as well as the type of shoes you wear.
Since injuries are technically called repetitive stress injuries, strategies that add variability in a sport that requires repetitive motion will help your body stay healthier. Reduce the repetition and you’ll reduce your injury risk.
Pay Attention to the Little Things
The “little things” are not really that little. They’re like small investments made daily into a savings account with a high interest rate that compounds over time.
Those little things include:
- Adequate sleep (7-8 hours but likely 8-9 hours)
- A nutrient-dense diet focusing on minimally-processed foods
- Self-massage (like foam rolling)
- A dynamic warm-up routine (to be done before every run)
- Strength training (bodyweight or in the gym)
Whether it’s extra sleep after a hard race or workout, or a 15-minute strength routine done three times a week—these all have a cumulative impact on your overall resilience to injuries over the long term.
Prevention Strategies That Don’t Work
While running is an ideal way to improve aerobic fitness, you still need to train your overall strength and athleticism. Because running puts repetitive stress on your body, bones and joints and ligaments must be strong enough to support those long runs, workouts, and races.
To use a car comparison, don’t let your engine outpace your chassis. Often the biggest risk for injury occurs a few weeks into your training plan when you feel fitter aerobically, but your body isn’t strong enough to handle increasing mileage. Lifting weights and dynamic stretching routines can help you reduce your injury risk.
Too Fast, Too Much, Too Soon
All things in moderation, and this is especially true when it comes to injury prevention. Whether you’re just starting a new season or in a heavy block of training, it’s essential to avoid the three “too’s”: too much running, too fast, too soon before your body is prepared to handle it.
While you may occasionally get away with over-extending yourself in one of these ways, combining any of them can quickly result in injuries. Always err on the side of caution when increasing volume and the pace of speed work, especially if you have been prone to injuries previously. Avoid large jumps in mileage so your body is prepared for the workload, and allow your workouts to gradually evolve over time to become more race-specific.
Following Fad Training Ideas
With the overload of information available about running, it’s easy to get confused about what types of workouts are best for your body and goals. The ideal option is to hire a coach who can create a personalized plan based on your training history. If that’s not possible, follow a thoughtfully developed training plan that is adjusted to suit your needs.
Branded programs that promise that you can run faster with less work or by doing something different entirely (like by lifting weights more than running or by avoiding an entire macronutrient) are not serious running programs used by high-level runners. Focus on the fundamentals; they never go out of style.
Despite the frequency of injuries among runners, injury prevention strategies are less complicated that you might think. Focus on these concepts in your training and you’ll be on your way to more consistent, injury free running.