If you’re gearing up for running season (and have a race on your spring bucket list), you’re not alone: In 2017 more than 18 million people in the US registered for road races, so chances are you know more than a few people who are getting into the running spirit. According to Running USA, the majority of runners are women and the most popular race distance is the 5K, with a half-marathon coming in second as the most popular distance.
Regardless of distance, it’s important to train smart with proper form and pre- and post-run rituals that will help prevent injuries. Even veteran runners fall into common running traps that can put their safety at risk — many of which lead to injuries that can leave you sidelined like shin splints, plantar fasciitis, patellar tendonitis, runner’s knee, IT band syndrome and even stress fractures.
So before you jump into your training plan, remind yourself what not to do. We’ve tapped some experts to school us on the most common running mistakes — and how to fix them.
Mistake #1: Overstriding
In terms of running form, your stride is vital to pay attention to. Your stride is the horizontal distance between the foot/ankle and the center of mass (pelvis) when the foot strikes the ground, according to Michael Conlon, physical therapist and owner of Finish Line Physical Therapy. “Simply stated, landing out in front of one's center of mass instead of directly below is the definition of overstriding,” he says. “Overstriding causes increased contact time and increased breaking force, which both contribute to a poor running economy and increased ‘loading’ (stress on our joints) especially the knees.”
Fix: Stretch and strengthen
Both stretching the hips and strengthening the position of the pelvis are imperative to avoiding overstriding. “Repositioning the pelvis or restoring hip mobility is one limitation that we see quite often,” Conlon explains. This could be due to a number of factors including tight hips, ill-stretched glutes, hamstrings and quads, or a weak core. Doing exercises like Pilates core work can help to strengthen the entire core (to better recruit it while running), and stretches (like those common in yoga) help to strengthen the hip and pelvis, while lengthening the muscles.
Mistake #2: Too Much Too Soon
When you’re feeling a renewed sense of motivation by an impending race date or by being able to take your runs outdoors again, you’ll want to hit the ground running (literally), but “your muscles, joints and ligaments need time to adjust to loading,” explains Dr. Lev Kalika, owner of New York Dynamic Neuromuscular Rehabilitation & Physical Therapy in NYC.
Timothy Lyman, Director of Training Programs for Fleet Feet Pittsburgh, agrees: “Running is exhilarating and empowering, but it can also be exhausting and draining.” Overestimating how much your body can handle can lead to injuries that will slow you down in the long run. “It’s so tempting, especially at the beginning of the season, to run far and fast,” says Dr. Ernest L. Isaacson, NYC based podiatrist, “And this is when I see a bump in shin splints, Achilles tendinitis and other overuse maladies.”
Fix #1: Slow and steady wins the race
Start slow and steadily build up your mileage. Dr. Isaacson recommends simply running at a pace that feels good, and doing it until the body says it’s time to quit. For those that desire a little more structure, Dr. Kalika says to follow this simple rule: a 10 percent mileage increase every 3 weeks. If someone typically runs 15 miles a week, they should increase to 16.5 miles and stay with that for at least three weeks before increasing again. “Listen to your body and only increase by another [10 percent] when after 3-4 weeks this new mileage feels light,” Dr. Kalika says.
Fix #2: Schedule in rest days
Take at lease one full rest day per week — but that doesn’t mean you have to spend them on the couch. On days that aren’t run days, consider cross-training activities like swimming and cycling to give your body a break from higher-intensity and higher impact activities like running. “It's important to give your body a chance to bounce back from vigorous activities it's not accustomed to, so down time and quality sleep is imperative,” says Lyman.
Mistake #3: Dragging your feet
“The most common [mistake] I see as a physical therapist who works with runners is that a lot of runners don’t pick up their feet enough,” says Ben Shook, physical therapist and founder of Axiom Physiotherapy.
Fix: Strengthen the hamstrings
The glutes get so much attention, but they really aren’t that active during running. The hamstrings are actually the muscle responsible for picking up your feet so that you land with less stress on your joints. (If you ever watch elite level runners, watch how much they pick up their feet when they run. The reason for that is that their hamstrings are incredibly powerful.)
“A great way to work on this is to work on hurdle exercises to help strengthen the hamstrings,” says Shook, who teaches runners to pick up their feet in order to increase speed and reduce stress on their joints. Simple exercises to strengthen the hamstrings are deadlifts and forward lunges. In a deadlift, slowly lower down with your legs straight, and then press down through the heels as you come back up. Similarly, in a forward lunge, step forward with one foot and then press down through that heel to come back to center. By pressing down through the heel, you’re activating the back of the leg and hamstring.
Mistake #4: Not taking enough steps per minute
A low cadence is another common mistake runners may make. “Cadence is the number of steps one takes per minute,” explains Conlon. “A low cadence increases joint loading, and is typically associated with heal striking, increased contact time and/or overstriding.” For most runners, approximately 90 steps per minute is the optimal goal.
Fix: Drill time
Conlon suggests engaging in some running drills like high knees, skipping or running backwards. “This teaches runners to land more mid- to fore-foot and below their center of mass,” he explains. Knowing where your foot strikes the ground is important because landing directly below the center of gravity allows the muscles and fascia to absorb the impact created by running. “The issue with heel striking is that it typically causes a runner to strike the ground out in front of their body, which is forward to their center of gravity. This slows down their forward motion,” Conlon says. Landing directly below the center of gravity, on the other hand, allows runners to take shorter, quicker steps which helps increase running speed.
Mistake #5: Wearing the wrong footwear
Do you buy the most stylish sneakers on the market (regardless of fit) or wear oldies that feel good? It’s time to reassess your running shoes. “A common mistake is wearing the wrong size shoes or worn out shoes,” says Lyman. When sneakers have been in rotation for a while, the arch may be worn out, the toe and heel padding may be sunken down, leading to a base that is lacking support. This can lead to shin splints and hip pain, and can also result in a rolled or twisted ankle, knee pain, and back pain due to excess pounding from running on a worn out foundation. Shoes that are the wrong size can also cause your body to function incorrectly: If your shoes are too small, your toes will be crammed and this can cause a jamming of the toes and even blackening of the toenails; If the shoes are too big, you’ll notice your heel slipping within the shoe and this can lead to ankle and knee injuries.
Fix #1: Get fitted by a professional
Those who have never been properly fitted for sneakers may be surprised that they are wearing the wrong size sneakers. A general rule is to use your thumb to measure the distance between your big toe and the front edge of the shoe (the toe box). That distance should be able to fit one thumbs length turned perpendicular. “Visit your local running specialty store and get fitted by an expert,” says Lyman, “They’ll be able to analyze the shape of your foot and make personalized recommendations based on your needs.”
Fix #2: Invest in new sneakers every 4-6 months
Wearing old running shoes with little to no support is dangerous, no matter what level runner you are. “If your shoes feel flat or have worn soles, it’s time for a new pair,” Lyman says. Another way that you can decide when it’s time for new shoes is to track your miles. Generally speaking, running shoes should be replaced every 300-500 miles or every four to six months, whichever comes first.
And you don't have to buy the fanciest, most expensive pair on the shelf: “Most runners will do well with a neutral type of shoe, of course with a custom orthotic, and it doesn’t have to be the best and most expensive shoe in the store,” says Dr. Isaacson. “Look for a lightweight shoe (<10 oz.) that feels good.”
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