In this blog post, I will discuss some common training errors that novice runners make. I’ll also discuss ways you can that modify your training routine to help reduce your risk of running injuries.

Introduction

Running as a sport has been gaining popularity over the years. Its growth has been exponential in the recent few months due to the COVID-19 restrictions. More and more people are throwing on their running shoes and taking to the streets due to the relatively low cost of getting into the sport and the potential health benefits.

Running has been shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and helps improve overall health and fitness. Although running has many benefits, there are injury risks as well. Running-related injuries are especially common in novice runners.

What causes running injuries?

A general rule for any injury (not just running injuries) is that when stress or demand is placed on the body and it exceeds the body’s ability to cope with that stress, something is going to breakdown. Pain isn’t always equal to tissue injury, but often a warning sign that something needs to be done before a soft tissue or bone injury occurs.

Here are 5 tips that can help reduce your risk of injury.

#1 Gradually increase your weekly running distance

Sudden increases in distance can increase your chances of injury. A recent study showed that when novice runners increased their running distance by over 30% in two weeks, they were more likely to sustain one of the following common injuries:

  • Iliotibial band (ITB) syndrome

  • Medial tibial stress syndrome

  • Patellofemoral pain

  • Patellar tendinopathy

  • Gluteus medius injury

  • Lateral hip pain

  • Trochanteric bursitis

The runners in the group who increased their running distance between 10-30% over those two weeks had fewer injuries compared to the runners who increased their distance by over 30%.

The exact biomechanical reasons for the increased injury rates still remain unknown. One theory is that when runners start running further than usual they’re likely to decrease their running speed due to fatigue. Decreased running speed means there is an increased number of steps which places larger cumulative stress on the knee, the shins (tibia) and the lateral muscles of the hip.

The key point here to help prevent running injuries is that you need to make gradual increases to your total distance of less than 30% every two weeks. As tempting as it may be, too much too soon is going to increase your risk of injury.

Runner preventing injuries with correct training

#2 Avoid Over Striding

Believe it or not, running is a skill that can be learnt. No two people will have the same running style, just like no two people will have an identical golf swing. Although there is no correct way to run, there are better ways. A better running technique is more efficient and can reduce injury rates.

When running at a constant speed, if our stride length increases then our step rate (cadence) has to decrease. There is an increased vertical movement of our bodies between each foot strike and an increased tendency to strike the ground with the heel further out in front of our bodies. This increases what’s known as “braking forces” resulting in increased stress on the heels, shins and knees.

Shorter stride lengths and increased cadence results in less vertical movement between steps, decreased impact with the ground and less shock absorbed by the legs. A shorter stride length will cause a runner to contact the ground with the mid or forefoot instead of the heel. One study found that reducing stride length by just 10% decreased the chances of tibial stress fractures by 3-6%

Slow-motion video of a foot strike when overstriding & when increasing step rate.

How to apply this

If you feel that you’re landing hard on your heels with each foot strike or you’re experiencing heel, shin or knee pain then increasing your cadence may be a good strategy for decreasing running injuries. Measure your cadence or step rate with a smartwatch or cadence sensor. Try and maintain a constant speed but increase your step rate by 10%. So if your cadence usually averages around 150 steps per minute, then you need to aim for about 165 steps per minute while keeping your speed constant.

#3 Incorporate Strength training

Strength training is extremely important when it comes to preventing running injuries. However, most of the runners that I have treated would prefer to be out running rather than in the gym. No, running with hand weights or a weighted backpack doesn’t count, and could even increase your risk of injury.

Why is strength training that important? Think about the calves and Achilles tendon for a second. They’re responsible for absorbing the load of 6-8x your body weight with each foot strike. The calves are considered to be the most important muscle group when it comes to running. This isn’t to say that the quads, hamstrings and glutes aren’t important for runners. The point is that you need to spend some time strength training the calves as part of your gym workout routine.

How to incorporate strength training

The goal of strength training for runners is to improve their strength to weight ratio. That means improving strength without adding too much weight. Runners might think that they need to train their muscles for endurance by performing high-repetitions for each exercise in the gym. The research has shown that runners get the most benefit from moderate to heavy resistance training.

A good strength and conditioning program for runners should consist of

  • Moderate to heavy resistance exercises

  • Explosive exercises

  • Plyometric exercises

I’ll break each one down.

Moderate to heavy resistance exercises

When performing exercises with moderate to high resistance you would typically use a weight that is more than 60% of your 1 rep maximum(1RM). Aim for 5-12 reps and perform 3-6 sets. For example, if your maximum deadlift is 100kg, then you’ll want to a weight over 60kg that you can lift for 5-12 repetitions.

Some examples include:

  • Squats

  • Deadlifts

  • Lunges

  • Split squats

  • Standing calf raises

  • Seated calf raises

  • Sled pushes

Explosive exercises

The goal here is to improve the rate at which your muscles generate force. The same exercises listed above can be performed explosively. The difference is the amount of weight used. Use a lighter weight that is less than 60% of your (1RM) and try to perform the concentric part of the movement as fast as possible. You should be aiming for 5-12 reps for 3-6 sets.

Plyometric exercises

Plyometric training is when a muscle is stretched and then suddenly contracted. Some examples of plyometric exercises for runners are:

  • Skipping

  • Jumping

  • Hopping

  • Drop jumps

It’s recommended that you include all three types of training into your gym workouts, but not all on the same day. They should be spread out between your weekly (or fortnightly) gym workouts. It’s important not to train to failure during these sessions. Strength training is meant to complement your running and help reduce injuries. Training to failure is going to cause fatigue and increase your risk of injury.

#4 Get enough sleep

Sleep is a vital component of recovery. Sleep deprivation can affect mood, coordination and cognitive functions. A recent study found that endurance athletes who slept less than 7 hours per night were at a higher risk of injury compared to those who got more than 7 hours of sleep. Sleep deprivation negatively affects the immune system, making you more susceptible to illness.

How much sleep should we be getting?

According to the National Sleep Foundation, adults between 18-65 years of age should be getting between 7-9 hours of sleep per night. Pro athletes have been reported to get even more sleep than that.

#5 Listen to your body

A high percentage of runners run with minor aches and pains. The research shows that the incidence of running injuries varies from 19.4% to 92.4%. The good news is that pain is not always equal to injury or the amount of tissue damage. However, pain can sometimes be a warning sign that something just isn’t right.

It’s recommended that you get any aches or pains diagnosed by a sports chiropractor, physio or appropriately trained healthcare professional. Once you have a diagnosis, your training plan can be modified so that you don’t aggravate your injury further. You might not even have to stop running, small modifications can be made to your running program such as changing your running distance, intensity, gym workouts or even the surface that you run on.

Warning Signs

There are a few warning signs to watch out for when running through pain:

  • Pain intensity while running that is a 5 out of 10 or higher

  • Pain that doesn’t decrease with rest

  • Pain at night or while you sleep

Does stretching help reduce injuries?

The research has found that stretching before or after a run doesn’t help reduce injuries. Although stretching might feel good, it doesn’t have an effect on injury rates. If you’re doing speed work or intense sessions, static stretching should be avoided before the session because of the potential to negatively affect your performance. Rather perform dynamic stretching, mobility and muscle activation exercises before you run, and static stretch afterwards. You can learn more about the effects of static vs dynamic stretching in a previous blog post by clicking here.

If you need any help with the diagnosis or treatment of a running-related injury please feel free to reach out to us at Prime Health & Performance.

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About the author:

Dr Michael Benporath is a sports chiropractor at Prime Health & Performance in Newstead, Brisbane.