7 proven tips to avoid running injuries

Some studies show that as high as 79 percent of regular runners struggle with an injury sometime in a year. And contrary to popular believe, no single factor can be blamed for this high rate of injury.

Understanding why most running injuries happen goes a long way in addressing them. This article aims to do just that, and provide you with 7 evidence-based tips to help you reduce your risk of injury.

Why most runners get injured:

Although our bodies are quite strong, your muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints only have a certain level of stress or load they can handle (capacity). Running is a “physical” stress called training load, and the load on your joints can be as high as 8 times your body weight every time your foot hits the ground.

When training load exceeds a structure’s capacity, the trouble start.

To explain this, imagine a bridge that is designed to handle two thousand cars a day (load). If the average amount of cars are consistently above this limit over a time period, the bridge will eventually break down at its weakest point. This is chronic overload.

On the other side, if an asteroid falls on it, it will break down immediately (acute overload).

In both cases the load exceeds its capacity, over different time periods.

Luckily, you’re not a bridge.

Unlike bridges, our bodies are adaptable.

So rather imagine your body’s load capacity as a box (see pictures below). This box needs to contain all your physical stressors.

Running has a big physical load on the body – which is not necessarily a bad thing. Increased load triggers adaption, leading to improved strength, fitness and resilience. Thus, if the TRAINING LOAD of your running is at the right level, it will force your body to adapt and increase its capacity over time.

That’s how you improve fitness and strength.

If the training load is not enough, no challenge happens, and no adaptation is triggered.

However, if training load is too much, then the body takes strain at a weak point.

Weak points can be old injuries, weak muscles/joints, or biomechanical issues.

This can happen in two ways: 1 – too much exposure over time (3000 cars per day over weeks), or  2 – a sudden big increase for which the body is not prepared for (asteroid).

To avoid this, here’s what you do:

Tip 1 – Keep track of your training load.

When you plan running days, weeks and months, remember that running training load has four factors you need to take into consideration (the FITT-principle):

  • Frequency: How many times a week you run.
  • Intensity: Running pace and elevation during a run.
  • Time: Time or distances you run per week or per session.
  • Type: Road/trial/strength training/cross -training.

Keeping track of your weekly training makes it easier to keep your training balanced and plan smarter.

Tip 2 – Be consistent in your training.

Consistency ensures that you improve your fitness and strength, maintain these improvements (the “use-it-or-lose-it” principal) and avoid overdoing it. For example:

  • Frequency: “I run 3-4 times every week”
  • Intensity: “I only do 1 faster run, 1 long run and 2 easy runs per week”.
  • Time: “The distances I can run now is 5km for short runs, and 10km for my long run”.

For more experienced runners, be aware that speed runs, hill runs and races stress the muscles and joints a lot. Make sure that these sessions contribute no more than 20% of your week’s running. Follow a hard running day with an easy- or rest day.

But don’t skip them (unless tip 6 applies) – hard sessions build strength, fitness and resilience.

Tip 3 – Progress gradually.

How you increase your weekly distances depends on how fit you are, and what your goal is. A future post will teach you the different ways to do this. For now, the generic “rule-of-thumb” is to increase your training load by no more that 10% week-on-week.

Example: “I’ll increase the weekly distance by 10 percent every week until I can run 10 km.”

Tip 4 – See recovery as an important training variable, not a “day off”.

Memorise this formula: LOAD + RECOVERY = PROGRESS.

Adaptation does not happen WHILE you run, it happens when you are not running. Or, during RECOVERY. It is very important to have recovery days, weeks and months in your program.

Also, research shows that quality sleep and good nutrition are your best recovery tools.

If you do not allow recovery days or weeks, your body does not have the opportunity to adapt to running.

Tip 5 – Avoid doing too much too soon, especially after doing too little for too long.

If you haven’t trained to lift 100kg, you will strain a muscle if you try. Similarly, if you do not train to run 21km, chances are good you will overload something if you suddenly try.

Remember, your body needs to prepare if your planning something big, otherwise it won’t be ready.

Be patient. Muscles, joints, the nervous system and the cardiovascular system need time to adapt.

Tip 6 – Keep track of other non-running factors that take an extra toll.

Other factors like poor sleep, stress and poor nutrition increases one’s risk of injury.

If you have a week where work, studies or stress are wearing you down, taking it easier with that week’s running is a smart move. In other words, those aren’t good weeks to increase distances, or do high intensity sessions like speed or hilly routes.

If you look at the box analogy again, other stressors can make your baseline load higher than usual. So if you increase your running as well, you reach your limits quicker than usual.

Also avoid sudden drastic changes in running shoes, like going from a traditional shoe to a minimalist shoe. Like training, gradual transition to something new is key. More on this in a future post (subscribe to my newsletter below to get notified).

Tip 7 – Include strength training if you are not doing so already.

More and more experts are recommending strength training for runners. In injury rehab, I use strength training as one of the main tools to deal with a client’s injury. It makes your muscles stronger and more resilient, improves your running economy and reduces your risk of injury.

You don’t have to become a gym-bunny. Just start with 2 sessions of 20-30 minutes a week at home.

If you do not know what exercises to do, consider looking here. Tailored exercise programs for where you are now, with the time and tools you have.

These tips cost nothing, and are easy to implement for every runner, no matter what your level.

If you prefer some guidance, you can always get in touch to discuss the two personalised running program options.

Happy running!

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