Why Do Runners Get Injured?
As a personal trainer with a special interest in running and runners, I often have to bite my tongue when I hear people remark that they stopped running to “save their knees” (or back). In a social setting, I would never argue with anyone on this point. However, as a trainer working with clients, I am quick to reassure despairing runners that there are simple fixes for injuries. The good news is that both recovery and prevention are possible!
The reality is that most people can run, and most people are capable of running extremely well, injury-free. Furthermore, most people can run consistently throughout the lifespan, as long as they take care to address specific training issues that are somewhat unique to runners.
The flipside of that reality is that most people do injure themselves running, due to a lack of balance in the training program. The issue is that people tend to assign too much meaning to the injuries, drawing one of two conclusions, both of which abdicate responsibility: (1) I’m not a good runner / I’m not built to run, OR, (2) Running kills your knees/back.
So why do these injuries happen, and what can we do to take responsibility for preventing exercise injuries?
Do too much too soon. Overtraining, especially at the onset of a running habit, is a terrible problem for runners. Most runners hit the streets (or treadmill) because they want to lose weight or de-stress. From that point of view, if 20 minutes of running burns 150 calories, 40 minutes of running is better, right? Wrong. Many people underestimate is the amount of stress that any new exercise puts on the body… and running is particularly high-impact.
Follow a structured running program, and if you are an absolute beginner (or recovering from an injury), use a run-walk program. And when you use the program, follow it religiously. Mindset is important here. Discard theories about calorie burning and other ancillary benefits of running, and focus on becoming a better runner, one day at a time. You will reap long-term rewards from starting slow, whereas starting too fast and too hard can put you on the sidelines almost immediately. Remember, walking burns calories, too!
Run every day. So many women use the phrase “5 miles a day” when they talk to me about their running routine, and I can’t emphasize enough that this is not a good idea. When you do the exact same exercise program every single day, the advantage is that habit formation and adherence are easy, but it’s not the most physiologically beneficial plan for your fitness. Your body adapts to the routine, and the exercise becomes less effective over time. You’re more prone to burnout.
(Also, running every day can create a sort of behavioral addiction. No, you’re not addicted to running per se – but you may become dependent on the feeling of having worn yourself out. This makes it difficult to take rest days, because you depend on the exertion and calorie burn to make yourself feel emotionally or psychologically okay. This can lead to trouble down the road.)
Aim for three days per week of strength training, and limit your running to 2-3 times per week. Those running days should be split into various training runs – some runs should be long distance, and others should be speed training or interval training. While I don’t subscribe to the “muscle confusion” philosophy, your exercise routine should have structured variety throughout each week. This allows for both recovery and improvement over a long period of time.
“Cross-train” by cycling or doing the elliptical. What do all fit these movements have in common with running? Front and back motion. One of the main problems with running is that it overtrains and fatigues the muscles that are associated with forward motion – especially the quadriceps on the fronts of the thighs and the hip adductors of the inner thighs, among others. While cycling or doing the elliptical can be a good recovery day to replace a run, it’s not the same as strength training.
Use strength training to counteract overuse issues in the core, hips, and legs. We all have muscular imbalances to some degree, and running tends to exacerbate the problems that already exist. These imbalances can eventually lead to joint problems in the feet, ankles, knees, hips, and back. But it’s important to note that running is not intrinsically “hard on the knees” – it is the muscular imbalances that result from running that can pull joints out of whack. Strength training addresses the underlying weaknesses and imbalances, and corrects the fundamental problems. Helpful bodyweight moves (when done with good form) include:
- Side Leg Raises
- Glute Bridges
- Side Plank
Stretch too much. Stretching can be an unhelpful override of the body’s natural self-protective tightness. Your body automatically stiffens up to help prevent injury, and stretching ignores this smart feature of your physiology and can create more damage. Think more of mobility and range of motion than flexibility, and don’t sweat it if you can’t fold into a yogi-shaped pretzel.
Focus on a few smart stretches, foam-rolling, and recovery. My two favorite smart stretches are:
- Downward Dog
- Child’s Pose
Foam-rolling, especially early in an exercise program, is an important tool of relaxation and recovery. The pressure from the foam-roller helps to increase circulation and calm the parasympathetic nervous system. It can also help “teach” your body to move better, and you may not need the foam roller as you become more accustomed to your exercise program.
Finally, make sure to incorporate recovery into your routine. Take a few days off from formal exercise every week (two days at most), and make sure you’re getting enough sleep and relaxation.
Are you interested in learning more about how to train for a race without injury? Use the form below to message me!