Running, on appearance, seems like an incredibly simple and straightforward activity — one foot in front of the other, right? Statistics vary, but as many as 60 percent of runners wind up injured in a given year. If you love the sport and hate ending up on the sidelines, there are steps you can take to build a more bullet-proof runner’s body.
We checked in with three of the sport’s top physical therapists for their top tips on staying injury free. Chris Johnston, of Seattle’s Zeren PT & Performance; Jay Dicharry, director of REP Lab in Bend, Oregon, and author of "Anatomy for Runners and Running Rewired", and Robert Gillanders, of Maryland’s Point Performance Team, all weighed in with their best advice.
How to avoid pain while running
To begin with, Johnston recommends runners accept that some pain is probably normal — to a point. “Getting runners fixated on ‘pain-free’ running is a disservice,” he says. “As runners, we are going to deal with aches and pains so it really boils down to decision making in the context of muddy water.”
With that in mind, Johnston has guidelines he wants runners to follow with their training. “Focus on building volume before layering in any focused hill or speedwork,” he says. “The tissues in the lower extremity need to go through a conditioning process that can’t be rushed.”
Johnston also emphasizes that runners should try to turn their feet over faster to help reduce the load on the lower legs. He refers to a 2011 study that shows a five percent increase in step rate at a constant running speed will lead to a 20 percent reduction in energy absorbed at the knee, thus lowering the odds of injury to this area.
Simple principles like the frequency of running, how often you run easy versus hard, and how you approach recovery all play a key role, too. “Overdoing it is classic among runners,” says Gillanders. “Instead, runners should aim to avoid junk (unnecessary) miles and replace them with cross training or active recovery.”
4 things to focus on when you're not running
While training principles are important, it’s often what you do when you’re not running that leads to the most gains in injury prevention, says Gillanders. “Runners want to run, but the components of efficient running include range of motion, core strength, and stability,” he says. “These are not things you build from just running.”
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Dicharry agrees. “We know running is going to overwhelm your tissues, so you need to prepare for your sport,” he says. “You need to take responsibility to ensure your engine and chassis show up ready to run.”
1. Watch your posture
Areas that runners might not consider but should include posture. “Posture is so much more than your mother telling you to stop slouching,” says Dicharry. “Runners who run in the ‘back seat,’ a highly arched back or slump forward when they get tired, wind up increasing the stresses on their body.”
To improve here, concentrate on your posture throughout the day — practice makes perfect. “The fix is to drop the rib cage down in front until the weight you feel is evenly split between your heels and forefoot,” says Dicharry. Then spread your shoulder blades down flat along your back without moving your spine. Yes, this will feel different, but with time can feel more familiar.”
Incorporate this posture while brushing your teeth, walking down the hall at work, and while running, says Dicharry. Start with three seconds at a time to begin with, eventually increasing until it becomes second nature.