How to Prevent Running Injuries

Hispanic Female jogger, having a cramp in her calf.
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Most common running injuries are due to overuse, overtraining, improper shoes, or a biomechanical flaw in body structure and motion. The good news is that many running injuries can be prevented. Follow these steps to keep yourself on the road.

1. Avoid the "Terrible Too's"

Many running injuries are a result of overtraining: too much intensity, too many miles, too soon. It's important to go easy when adding mileage or intensity to your training. You shouldn't increase your weekly mileage by more than 10% each week. You can still push your limits, but you'll have to take a gradual and patient approach. By building up slowly, you can save yourself pain and frustration, and still reach your goals. Let common sense and a smart training schedule determine how much you should be running.

2. Treat Your Feet Right

Be sure that your shoes aren't worn out and that you have the right model for your feet and running style. The wrong shoe can actually aggravate existing problems, causing pain in your feet, legs, knees or hips. Wearing shoes that have lost their cushioning may also lead to injury. Go to a specialty running shop where you can be properly fitted for running shoes, and replace them every 350-500 miles. If you have a biomechanical problem with your feet, you may also look into getting fitted for heel lifts or orthotics.

3. Find the Right Surface

Once you have the right shoes, you want to make sure you're using them on the best surface. Ideally, you want the ground to absorb shock, rather than passing it along to your legs. Avoid concrete as much as possible: It's about 10 times as hard as asphalt and is a terrible surface for running. Try to find grass or dirt trails to run on, especially for your higher mileage runs. Consistency is important, too, because a sudden change to a new running surface can cause injuries. You'll also want to avoid tight turns, so look for slow curves and straight paths.

4. Stay Loose

A regular stretching program can go a long way toward injury prevention. Be diligent about stretching after your runs -- your body will make you pay if you get lazy about it. Regular self-massage with a foam roller or other massage tool can help eliminate post-run tightness that is common among runners

5. Keep Your Balance

Injuries sometimes pop up when you're paying too much attention to your running muscles and forgetting about the others. For example, knee pain sometimes occurs because running strengthens the back of your legs more than the front of your legs. Your relatively weak quads aren't strong enough to keep your kneecap moving in its proper groove, which causes pain. However, once you strengthen your quads, the pain will often go away. You don't need to lift serious weight to make a difference. Doing 15 minutes of body weight exercises two to three times a week can make a huge difference with injury prevention.

6. Avoid Heel-Striking

Heel striking is when your feet are landing in front of your hips, so your heel is hitting the ground first. Ideally, you want to land mid-foot. Heel striking, which is fairly common among runners, can lead to injuries such as shin splints and joint pain. Indeed, a recent study found that runners who first strike the ground with their forefeet experience fewer knee injuries than their heel-striking counterparts. It’s also a less efficient way to run because you’re in essence braking with each step, so you waste a lot of energy. 

Focus on landing mid-sole, with your foot directly underneath your body with every step. A short, low arm swing is the key to keeping your stride short and close to the ground. Try to keep your steps light and quick, as if you're stepping on hot coals. As you keep practicing landing mid-sole, it'll become easier and more natural.

7. Run With Your Feet Pointing Straight

Runners who run with their feet pointed out or in are more likely to deal with ankle or knee issues. You want to try to avoid any twisting or sideways motion when you're running and keep your feet and legs moving directly forward. Try to run in a straight line, so that your foot placements are parallel to each other. This will reduce the rotation or twisting of your ankles and knees. For those runners whose feet naturally point in or out, running with your feet pointing straight can feel unnatural at first. Keep trying it for short stretches of your runs and it will eventually start to feel more comfortable.

8. Don't Slouch

Good upper body form means staying upright and keeping your shoulders back and relaxed.  If your shoulders hunch over, not only will you have more difficulty breathing (because your chest is compressed), but your lower back may start to ache during your run or after you've finished. Having a strong core makes it easier to maintain good posture while running, so make sure you're working some core exercises into your training. While you're running, do a posture check every mile or so. Raise your shoulders to your ears and then drop them down to their relaxed position.

9. Keep Your Head Straight Up

Your head may feel heavy, especially towards the end of a long run. But if you don't hold it properly, you may develop problems. If it tilts too far back, your head places a strain on your neck muscles. Holding your head too far forward could lead to neck and back pain. It can also compress your chest and make it harder to breathe. You should keep your head right above your shoulders and hips.

If you think your running form could use some help, it may be worth consulting a physical therapist or running coach for advice. You may need some intervention with targeted exercises to correct some muscle weaknesses or imbalances.

10. Make Sure You're Ready to Return

To prevent re-injury, ease back into training with deep water running, cycling, or using an elliptical trainer. Talk to your doctor or physical therapist about when it's safe to start running again. Overtraining is the number one cause of injuries, so try to remember that progress takes time.

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