In the first three years of my running endeavours, I successfully avoided injury. Alas, I’m writing this now with a niggling hip and/or hamstring injury which is slowing my training down and causing me daily pain, even in bed at night.
It’s helped me realise how devastating it can be to start a fitness journey of any kind and then drop out because you get injured. It’s also made me consider what I did wrong to create this injury and what I was doing right prior to that. Of course, it’s sent me into a learning overdrive as I try to work out how to heal myself and how to avoid it from happening again.
I wanted to write this post to help others who may be just starting a fitness journey or learning to run because that’s often the riskiest time when people get injured.
Anyone who’s been running for a while will know how common injuries are. In fact, I’d guess that many people who stop running do so because they get injured. It could be the feet that pack up, more often the knees, and commonly a hip, hamstring (at the back of the thigh) or another unidentifiable tendon, muscle or joint.
Whether you’re just learning to run or have been running for a while, these tips will help you avoid getting injured so you can continue to run (or do whatever sport you love), stay fit and get out in the fresh air with your friends.
1. Start slowly
If you’re really new to running see my running for beginners over 40 post which recommends alternating walking and running.
If you’ve got zero fitness you probably want to do a lot more walking than running.
Certainly, you should avoid sprinting or running up hills – that’s a recipe for disaster.
2. Increase distance or pace super slowly
Most experts recommend you increase the weekly distance you run slowly by no more than 10% each week. So if you’re a beginner you might do three 5km (3 mile) walks each week totalling 15km. However, you might only run for 500m in each of those walks.
Eventually, you’ll slowly increase how much time you spend running and get fit enough to be able to run the whole way. Let’s say you eventually run 15km each week split between three runs, and now want to start running more. You should only increase each run by 500m a week or your weekly distance by 1.5km.
Progress will seem slow because it will take you months to be able to run 30km per week but you’ll avoid injury if you build up slowly.
The same goes for pace.
I did this slow increase quite successfully when training for my half marathon in Luang Prabang but threw caution to the wind when I decided to do a 50km ultra run. In that case, I created a short training plan and increased my weekly distance from about 30km to 50km. That’s a 66% increase which I now understand is a surefire way to get injured.
My hips started hurting almost immediately but I ignored the pain and carried on training. It wasn’t until I actually did the ultrarun that my hip gave out altogether.
I knew about the 10% rule but ignored it because I’d never been injured before and thought I was bulletproof. It turns out that wasn’t the case.
What I’d been doing right for my whole running career until that point was building pace and distance super slowly. In fact, being lazy and fearful of sweating and getting out of breath helped me stay injury free.
3. Warm up and cool down
This really helps. Allow at least 10 to 15 minutes for your warm up and cool down, running even slower than ever.
4. Do some strength work
You’ll need to go slowly with strength if you’ve never done any before. Walking up hills or steps is great to start with. Once you get fitter and stronger you might start running up hills and steps. Take it easy. Pick it up slowly. For example, you might build up to eventually doing five hill repeats but one is plenty in week one. One and a half in week two and two repeats in week three. Build incrementally from there.
That way you’ll get there in the end and injury free.
Other strength work could include:
- Calf raises;
- Bulgarian squats;
- Nordic hamstring curls.
- Copenhagen side lift.
If you don’t know what these exercises are don’t worry, you’ll find a video demonstration on YouTube.
Again you MUST build up slowly. Start with 10 repetitions of each and just one set about three times a week. Build up slowly to two then three sets of 10 reps three or four times a week.
5. Practice awareness
When running, doing strength training or practising any type of exercise program, you need to be hyper-aware of your own body and emotions. If something feels bad stop or slow down. If you’re tired cut your run short or do it another day.
6. Beware of running with others
It’s too easy to go too fast or too far if you’re with other people. I love my running groups but am running more on my own at the moment.
That way I can go at my own slow pace without the temptation to try to keep up or worry that I’ll slow everyone down if I walk the hills instead of running them.
7. Don’t overstride
It’s better to take lots of small quick steps rather than fewer long strides. When you pick up the pace, be aware of your stride length and focus on increasing the number of footsteps you take. Fast, light feet is my new running mantra.
8. Make recovery part of your fitness
Resting, eating well and avoiding running two days in a row will all help you recover better from your runs and help you stay avoid injury.
Prioritise recovery on your days off as much as you do running.
9. Don’t stop running
All my advice comes with a caveat that you should consult a doctor. However, I spoke with a physio last week who pointed out how common it is for injured runners to stop running altogether then immediately reinjure themselves when they start back again.
If you have to stop running completely you’ll have to ease back into it very slowly and carefully following the 10% rule (see no. 1).
However, ideally, like me, you’ll be able to continue running. Just run more slowly and avoiding stressors like hills or sprints. Afterall, that’s what my body had been telling me to do and if I’d paid attention to that I probably wouldn’t be injured now.
Hopefully, these tips will help you avoid running injuries. It turns out I’m not bulletproof – we’re all only human. But following these simple rules can help us keep up our fitness program, stay active and keep running or enjoying whatever sport you love doing.
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