Running is a fantastic exercise that is easily accessible to a wide array of people. Its requirements are simple: Lace up your shoes, and head out the door.
Unfortunately, a startlingly high percentage—up to 65%—of runners are affected by injury every year. Fortunately, many of these injuries are easily preventable. Though it requires a small investment of time beyond what you spend running, the benefits are well worth the effort.
At the most basic level, injury prevention means that we’re preventing injuries from ever happening in the first place. But even though it’s a simple concept, a multifaceted approach is the most effective. Incorporating strength training, allowing proper time for recovery, and using tools like a foam roller can all be beneficial.
One of the major reasons that runners get injured is because our bodies are unprepared to handle the physical demands of the activity. Since many of us lead sedentary lives outside of running, our muscles and joints aren’t always ready for us to jump into an aggressive training plan.
When it comes to building an injury-resistant body, remember this analogy: Don’t let your engine outpace your chassis! What that means is that you can’t let your aerobic fitness (endurance) outpace your structural fitness (bones, tendons, ligaments and muscles). If you do, you’re setting yourself up for injury.
1. Wearing the “right” shoe for your foot type can prevent injuries.
We have long been told that the type of shoe each of us needs in order to run healthy is based on how much we pronate—or how much your foot rolls inward. Runners who overpronate, or roll inward more aggressively, have typically been directed toward heavier, motion-control shoes.
But a recent study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine shows that this is a myth. In fact, the best way to determine what type of shoe works best for you involves asking an extraordinarily simple question: Is it comfortable? Keep your shoe selection simple, and don’t be swayed by fancy new technology. If the shoe fits well and feels good, wear it.
2. Avoiding injury is easier for those with “good” running form.
Changing your running form, also a widely discussed concept, can have varying results when it comes to injury prevention. For most of us, making a major overhaul to our running form is unnecessary and inadvisable.
One related concept might prove helpful, however. Studies show that increasing your stride rate (i.e., how many steps you take per minute) can be an effective tool in your injury-prevention tool kit. By shortening your stride and taking more steps per minute, you may lower the risk of injury by reducing the impact stresses with each foot strike.
Much to every runner’s chagrin, there is no “magic bullet” when it comes to injury prevention. But the hallmark of any preventative program is simple: strength work. Once your structural fitness is in place, it will support your aerobic fitness as you continue to build greater mileage and speed into your workouts.
What does “strength work” actually mean? There are several components:
- Dynamic warm-ups: These are short, simple routines that employ dynamic movements to help prepare your body to run. Studies show that dynamic warm-ups (ones that involve active movement of muscle groups you’ll use in your workout) are more effective than static stretching. Research also shows that performing a dynamic warm-up before a strength-training session may help reduce post-workout soreness.
- Dynamic cooldowns: Just like the warm-up routines, these are a short-and-simple set of exercises that help your body cool down after your run, and build strength and flexibility in key areas like your hips, glutes and hamstrings.
- Core and strength routines: Strength routines that focus on core, hip and glute strength are critical to injury prevention. Weak hips and glutes are frequently to blame for running injuries, and a strong core helps you remain stable when fatigue starts to kick in.
- Proper buildup: While it’s not always essential to stick with the 10% rule when it comes to increasing mileage, you do want to make sure you don’t try to take on too much, too fast.
- Proper recovery: Easy days and rest days are essential! These are critical to helping your body recover and absorb the previous day’s hard training.
This simple routine can help you get started on the path to injury prevention. The following set of exercises will help runners of all ability levels build strength and prevent injuries. These moves address areas that are commonly weak in runners—especially for those of us who sit in an office all day. Performing 2 sets of this routine should take only 15–20 minutes. You can also add weights and/or additional reps to make it more challenging.
1. Forward Lunge (10–20 reps per leg)
Step forward with your right leg so your knee is positioned over your ankle. Lower your body until your left knee brushes the ground. Step back, and repeat on the other side. Once you have mastered forward lunges, there are a variety of others you can add to your routine, including twisting, lateral, diagonal and reverse lunges.
2. Step-Ups (10 reps per leg)
Stand in front of a step or bench that’s 1–2 feet high. Step up with your right foot until your leg is straight. Maintain a tall posture, and step down with the left foot. Repeat on the other side.
3. Pistol Squats (5–10 reps per leg)
Stand on your right leg with your arms straight out in front of you, then slowly squat down so your right thigh is almost parallel to the ground. Keep the motion slow and controlled, then return to standing. Repeat on the other side.
4. Single-Leg Deadlifts (10–20 reps)
Stand tall, then bend forward from the hip (not the spine) while standing on your left leg and extending your right leg behind you for balance. Return to standing by activating the glutes.
5. Push-Ups (10 reps)
Rest your weight on your palms and toes with your hands shoulder-width apart. Keep your back straight and lower your body until your chest reaches the ground, then push back up. To modify, rest your weight on your knees instead of on your toes.
6. Marching Bridge (30–60 seconds)
Lie face up with your feet flat on the ground. Lift your hips and contract your glutes so you form a straight line from your shoulders to your knees. Straighten one leg, hold for 2–3 seconds, and repeat on the other side.
7. Plank (30–90 seconds)
Place the forearms on the ground with the elbows aligned below your shoulders and arms parallel to the body, about shoulder-width apart. Keep your back straight and hold.
In addition to consistent strength work and smart training, here are some other aspects to consider:
1. Foam rollers, FootLogs and massage, oh my! These can all be part of your injury-prevention tool kit. Studies in the Journal of Health and Conditioning show that foam rolling tight muscles can help increase blood flow and relieve tension.
2. Nutrition. While nutrition is too broad a topic to address in depth here, generally speaking, runners should stick with real, whole foods and avoid refined, processed ones. Make sure you take in sufficient calories to fuel your body and help it recover efficiently.
1. I’m not injured right now. Do I need to do these “extra” workouts?
Yes! Because we’re talking about injury prevention, it’s essential to integrate the concepts described above while you’re still healthy. Although each of these principles can be applied if you’re already struggling with an injury, prevention is definitely the best medicine.
2. I’m convinced! What’s the time commitment?
Prevention always takes less time than recovery (from an injury), so investing a small amount of time now can save you days or weeks of downtime and rehab work. The time commitment is minimal, and once you learn some simple warm-up, cooldown and strength exercises, you’ll find it easily becomes part of your regular routine. Warm-up and cooldown routines take about 5–15 minutes, max. A 15–20 minute strength routine performed twice weekly can provide significant benefits.
Here are a few example routines to help you get started:
The Standard Core Routine (every runner’s “bread and butter” core workout)
The ITB Rehab Routine (runner-specific strength workout)
The Mattock Warm-up (dynamic warm-up routine)
3. Should I only focus on injury prevention during my racing season?
Whether you’re racing or not, it’s ideal to perform injury-prevention work year-round. While it becomes especially essential as you ramp up mileage for races, the off-season is a great opportunity to use the extra time (you’re not spending running) to maintain and build your structural fitness.
You can also change your approach and build strength in different ways throughout the year, focusing on more running-specific workouts during hard training and using cross-training like cycling or more intensive weight training while running easy maintenance mileage.
Once you understand the essentials, injury prevention is easy to incorporate into your regular routine. Get started now to run strong and healthy for years to come!