8 Tips to Prevent Running Injuries—from a Marathoner
I look super pained lol, but I’m having a lot of fun, I promise!
Injuries are probably a runner’s greatest fear (along with endless port-a-potty lines at race starts and horrendous sock tans).
I’ve had my fair share of injuries—after running for 11+ years, and doing 3 marathons and 9 half marathons, there have been plenty of opportunities for things to go wrong. It actually took me three training cycles (around 1.5 years) to finally run my first marathon, since I got injured the first two. But after taking some preventative measures, I went injury-free for 4 years.
(For full transparency, I have been dealing with some injuries the past year, but they weren’t caused by running).
It’s a common misconception that running is inherently bad for your body, but that’s generally not true. For instance, a people love to say that running is “bad for your knees.” Studies have shown, however, that runners develop knee oesteoarthritis at lower rates than non-runners, and that running can even help improve knee cartilage health. So, if you feel that running is harming your body, you’re probably running wrong.
In this post, I’ll be sharing 8 tips to avoid those dreaded injuries, based on my experience as a distance runner. Keep in mind that I’m not a health professional, so be sure to consult one before making any big changes to your fitness routine. That said, I did my best to research this post, and you can click on the linked sources to learn more.
How to Avoid Running Injuries—8 Tips from a Marathoner
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1. Get proper shoes, rotate them, and replace them regularly.
My absolute favorite model and brand of shoe, the Brooks Launch
One of most common running mistakes is to wear improper shoes. Many runners (myself included!) simply start in a random pair of sneakers. While that may work for a while, those random shoes usually don’t support your feet and running gait correctly. For example, some people have high arches, or they’re forefoot strikers, or they overpronate (foot rolls in)—their running shoes should be adapted to that. Otherwise, you could be putting extra strain on your body, which leads to injury.
Experts recommend getting fitted at your local running store to find your ideal shoe. The shoes in these stores tend to run $100+ a pop though, so I understand if that’s not affordable for you! You can also take a quiz online to find a good fit, and I personally recommend the Brooks Shoe Finder. Online prices tend to be cheaper, and if you want to save even more money, you can search up the recommended model on eBay (just make sure it’s open-box or lightly used). You can also save money by buying the previous season’s model, as shoes are constantly updated.
If you already have the right pair of shoes, the next step would be to consider rotating a couple pairs. Instead of wearing one pair exclusively, you might get another model to switch between. What are the benefits? Studies have shown that rotating running shoes can reduce risk of injury. In a 2013 study, the experimental group that rotated running shoes experienced injury at 61% the rate of the group that didn’t. This is likely because switching shoes varies the strain you’re putting on different parts of your body.
Keep in mind that you may also want different shoes for different types of running, like speed workouts or trail running. Trail running on technical terrain requires extra support and traction that road shoes don’t provide.
I don’t rotate regular running shoes, but I do have different shoes for trail running
Finally, be sure to replace your shoes ever 300-500 miles! If your shoes are too worn out, they won’t be able to offer the same support. Once I retire my running shoes, I usually use them for walking and mowing the lawn. Once they’re finally too worn out, try to recycle them through a program like Nike Reuse a Shoe (currently on hold because of the pandemic).
Looking for a neutral shoe recommendation? I use the Brooks Launch (buy on Amazon or Brook)—they’re light, have just the right amount of cushion, and come in awesome colors. Brooks also is one of the more responsible running companies, and you can check out their Corporate Responsibility Performance Report.
2. Warm up and cool down.
Stretching my hamstring
Before setting out on your run, try to do a slower jog, brisk walk, or some dynamic stretches. If you go straight into a run, especially a higher-intensity one, you’re more likely to pull a muscle. And while static stretching (holding one position for a long time) is okay after a run, it’s not recommended before, as you could also damage muscles that aren’t warmed up.
Personally, I like to do some glute bridges, ankle exercises, and a pelvic drop exercise before going on my normal runs. I’ll also do a slower one-mile warm up and form drills before speed workouts.
After your run, take care to stretch. Your muscles will be warmed up, so static stretching will improve your range of motion. I focus on 4 main areas: my hamstrings, hips, calves, and quads.
I also sometimes foam roll if I’m feeling especially sore. If you’re not familiar with foam rolling, you basically put your body weight on a cylinder of foam, and “roll out” your leg muscles, releasing any tension. It can hurt a lot, but it helps you recover faster! Other people also swear by “the stick” or a muscle-rolling stick. It tends to hurt less since you’re not using your body weight, but can also help release tight muscles (one downside though: my friends have mistaken this as a very large sex toy LOL).
Foam rolling my IT band
3. Increase mileage carefully.
Running too much without proper buildup can lead to overuse injuries, as your body can’t handle the extra stress. This is another common running mistake that beginners make.
For the longest time, experts have recommended no more than 10% extra distance weekly. This rule is a little simplistic though. For new runners, 10% per week is too conservative. For higher-mileage runners, it can be too much.
A newer rule that’s gaining traction is the 3-week rule, where you increase mileage every 3 weeks only, but with a more significant jump. For example, you might do 10 miles total the first 3 weeks, then go up to 17 miles for the next 3 weeks. This 3-week period allows your body to adjust to the new strains of more mileage. This rule can work for both beginners and higher-mileage runners.
If you’re a total beginner, you might also consider taking a day or two off between runs, allowing your body to adjust to running. This None to Run plan has you running just 3 times/week. It also uses the run/walk method, where you alternate running and walking—it’s a great way to ease into things!
Regardless of whether you’re new or experienced, try to take a week of lower mileage every 3-4 weeks. These are known as “down weeks,” where you reduce mileage 15-20% of where you were previously. Down weeks are helpful because constantly adding more mileage can lead to burnout.
I personally experienced burnout in my first two marathon training cycles, so I took extra care for my third cycle. I actually increased my long run mileage only every 2-4 weeks, and kept my weekly mileage relatively steady otherwise (I used a really weird triathlon-style marathon training). It worked—I didn’t burn out, and I finally broke 4 hours at the Paris Marathon in 2019!
4. Cross train and strength train.
If there’s anything I know about running, it’s cross-training haha. This is where you do non-running activities to keep your fitness up. Like I just mentioned, I basically train triathlon-style for marathons. I would run only 2-3 times per week, and bike, swim, or do yoga the other days. My highest-mileage month before the Paris Marathon was 65 miles, which some marathoners cover in a week.
You don’t have to run every day to race longer distances, especially if you’re injury-prone. I actually started cross-training more often after getting injured during my first 2 marathon training attempts. I believe that I finally was able to complete marathons largely because of my cross-training.
My mileage is a little too low for most people (at least for marathoners), but it’s perfectly feasible to become a strong runner and only run 3 days a week. There’s actually a whole book this low-mileage training method—it’s called Run Less, Run Faster.
If you like running too much to give it up for cross-training, that’s okay too! There are perfectly successful and injury-free runners who run every day. Cross-training is just a suggestion for those who have battled with injuries before.
Otherwise, another important aspect of running is strength training. You want to have a strong core and legs to avoid injury and run more efficiently. Here are some popular strength-building exercises that you can do at home:
- Legs/glutes/hips: glute bridges, lunges, single-leg Russian deadlifts, single-leg calf raises
- Core: forward and side planks, leg lifts, penguins, back extensions
Oftentimes, common running injuries are actually caused by strength imbalances in your body. For instance, if your knees bother you when you run, it might be because you have weak hips. This is why it’s important to strengthen these key parts of your body.
5. Get enough sleep and rest.
Most health professionals recommend around 7 hours of sleep a night for adults, but runners may benefit from more. Your body needs time to repair itself after those hard workouts! I personally am a big sleeper lol, and feel best on 8-9 hours.
It really comes down to what works for you, though. Some elite runners report sleeping 9-10 hours a night, not including daytime naps! Other endurance athletes sleep less than 6 hours. For us “normal” folk with day jobs, sometimes extra sleep just isn’t possible. Just do your best to find out how much you personally need, and can get.
Similarly, experts recommend at least 1 day of rest per week, with no running or hard physical activity. This allows you to heal soft-tissue injuries and replenish glycogen stores (basically stored energy from the glucose in the food you eat). That said, some people can run every day and be just fine. Others may want or need even more rest time.
If your legs are feeling heavy, you’re low-energy, or you’re not feeling motivated, then those could be signs that you need more rest. Never feel guilty about taking time off, as it’s an important part of training.
Between training cycles (about twice a year), I actually like to take 2 whole weeks off, where I don’t exercise at all. Some elite athletes will even take a whole month off! This not only helps you reset physically and mentally, but also lets you focus on other aspects of your life.
6. Eat well.
You need the right fuel to be able to run and recover well. Make sure you’re eating a balanced diet, and getting essential nutrients from real foods. This Runner’s World article has a great breakdown of important vitamins for runners, how much you need, and which foods they can be found in.
After a run, especially an intense one, try to eat protein and carbs as soon as possible. This will help you rebuild your energy stores and repair your muscles. Some ideas for post-run snacks include:
- Peanut butter and banana on whole-grain toast (or an apple with peanut butter)
- Fruit smoothie (an easy recipe is oat milk, banana, peanut butter, and cocoa powder)
- Energy balls (oatmeal, peanut butter, maple syrup, cocoa powder)
- Trail mix
- Baby carrots and hummus
- Baked potato
- Oatmeal with nut butter and fruits
7. See a physical therapist if you suspect an injury.
If you have a nagging pain, soreness, or tightness that hasn’t gone away after a week or two, you might want to see a PT. It’s better to resolve the issue earlier on than to have it develop into a long-term problem. While physical therapy can be pricey, it’s often more expensive to ignore an injury.
I’ve made this mistake myself, on more than one occasion. Last year, I fell and twisted my ankle while skiing. Luckily, it wasn’t too serious, and I was still able to run. But I didn’t get PT for months, and it didn’t heal properly. I missed out on a few weeks of running when it finally acted up last year, and it likely also led to a hamstring problem later that year (an imbalance issue). Over a year later, that ankle still bothers me sometimes.
If I’d gone earlier, my ankle would’ve been a minor issue resolved with some strengthening exercises. Instead, it became a domino-effect injury that led to another one, and required several months of PT in all.
If you want to get PT but the price isn’t accessible to you, check if there are free physical therapy clinics in your area. Some PT schools offer free student clinics for those who can’t afford PT, as a way for students to get hands-on training (they’ll be supervised by a licensed PT, don’t worry!).
8. Get a gait analysis.
If you’ve had tons of injuries and can’t figure out what’s up, I highly recommend getting a gait analysis. If you haven’t had any issues but want to avoid injury at all costs, I also recommend this. During a gait analysis, physical therapist will watch you run and identify issues with your form. They may also check for any strength imbalances in your body.
I attribute my 4 years of being injury-free to getting a gait analysis and training smarter. When I got my gait analysis, I learned that one of my hips was weaker than the other, that my knees angled in when I ran, and that my cadence was a little slow. I was given a set of exercises to address these issues, and they helped me run stronger and more efficiently.
Gait analyses are often covered by insurance if you can get a doctor’s referral (if you’ve been injured). Otherwise, you’ll have to pay out-of-pocket, as it’s considered a preventative service. The cost usually ranges from $100-200.
It’s worth noting that if you get fitted for running shoes, they actually do a gait analysis, and you may be able to garner some insight about your form. It’s not as “official” as going into a PT clinic, but it may still be helpful, and it’s free (you just pay for the shoes you end up picking).
9. (Bonus) Avoid “risky” activities.
This last tip is a “bonus” because it’s not really running-related, but it could help you avoid injuries that impact your running.
Like I said earlier, I’ve been dealing with injuries related to a skiing fall last year. While skiing isn’t that risky for most people, I hadn’t been in years, and stupidly went with a friend to real mountains in France (I’m from Ohio, and I’ve only ever been skiing in “fake” mountains and snow). I was way in over my head, and should’ve stayed on the easier trails. But my friend was advanced, so I just kind of tagged along. In the end, I didn’t even fall on a hard trail—I fell on probably the flattest part possible!
This isn’t to tell you to avoid skiing at all costs (though I certainly will be haha), but to just remind you to be careful and assess the real risk of any other activities. In the end, we have to live our lives, and sometimes shit just happens. My latest injury was falling on my butt down some slippery stairs, and it’s not like I can avoid stairs my whole life.
I hope you learned something new from this post, and I’d love to hear any personal tips or stories you have.
If you’re currently dealing with injury, I hope you recover quickly! The emotional side of injury is probably worse than the physical side. I bawled all night when I fell on my butt, but a whole week after it happened—I was just tired of all the setbacks.
These challenges are what make running more meaningful though, and I know you’ll appreciate it all the more when you’re back.
Other posts you may enjoy:
How to Save Hundreds on Running Expenses
10 Common Running Mistakes to Avoid
How to Find Your Running Motivation