Finding ways to prevent the most common running injuries is imperative if you are training for a long distance race or charity run. After all, it’s no good getting a whole bunch of people to sponsor you for your marathon, only to get injured during your training regime, and have to quit before you even reach the start line. A recent survey published in the May 2012 issue of Runners World highlights the fact that in the last twelve months, 56% of UK runners picked up at least one injury. The Brits were closely followed by the Australians on 51%, and the Americans on 50%. These are quite shocking figures given that many of us start running to get fit and improve our health. So why does it happen? How are more than half of us injuring ourselves running every year and what can we do to prevent it?

As one of the 56% of Brits who got injured in the last twelve months, I can give some insight into the reasons for people picking up a the problems which stopped them in their tracks. There are many ways to harm yourself running, but I have concentrated them into three main groups: wrong kit, wrong terrain, and over-eagerness. At points in the past, I have fallen foul of all three, but if you consider each of them, and make sure you address each correctly, you should be able to remove many of the risks, and keep on running happily and injury-free. Let’s take a closer look at them separately.

Running Injury Caused By Wrong Equipment Choices

Perhaps the most common reason for a runner having to take a time out due to injury is because of a poor choice of running shoes. This could be due to a new runner simply picking up their old sneakers and using them even though they were not designed for running. Or they might have been the cheapest shoes online, so no thought went into whether to opt for neutral, or cushioned or stability shoes. Getting this selection wrong can severely affect your alignment when you run, and often result in overuse problems such as muscle strains.

The kit can be fairly expensive if you want proper running shoes instead of fashion sneakers, and if you go out running regularly, you must think about replacing them every six months or so (or every 300-500 miles). The midsoles are designed to help cushion your footfalls, and they do wear out and lose that cushioning ability over time. You might consider keeping a log of all your run distances, so you can tot up your mileage when you think it might be time for some new shoes.

When you go and choose your first pair of shoes, it is always best to go to a reputable running store. The staff there will be able to help you select the correct type for your foot biomechanics. You might be asked to run on a treadmill while they watch how your feet land, and then they can assess whether you require neutral shoes, or perhaps ones for overpronators (if your arch collapses inwards as you land).

There might also be other equipment which affects your running form, and which may contribute to injury. For example, something as innocuous as carrying a water bottle could alter the natural movements of your arms, and lead to compensations elsewhere in the kinetic chain. It is amazing sometimes how pain and injuries are felt far away from the actual problem. So wearing the wrong shoes could lead to knee, hip or lower back pain. Or swinging a water bottle might mean you use your hip muscles less, causing the hamstrings and calves to take on more of the propulsive action, risking strains later on.

Think long and hard about your equipment, and whether you feel it change the way your run. If it does, maybe it’s time to find another solution (eg different shoes, or a Camelbak hydration pack).

Bad Habits And Wrong Terrain
If you have ever had to sit and type at a computer for hours on end, especially for work or school, no doubt somebody (at some point) will have tried to warn you about repetitive strain injury (RSI) which can cause all sorts of problems, such as carpel tunnel syndrome. Well, running is similarly dangerous, especially if you design a really nice route, and then proceed to run that same route on the same type of terrain every time you go out for a workout.

You will find that you are always using the same muscle groups and tendons and they all get exhausted and overused. And this can cause strains in exactly the same way as RSI. It is far better to vary your runs in every imaginable way. That means varying the distances you run; the kind of training you do (sprinting, long and slow runs, hill repeats, fartlek, etc); and the types of terrain you run on. Your body will definitely thank you for this. It’s fine to run on the road, or pavements in parks. But if you can get access to a track, or find a nice countryside route and do some trail running, then use them to mix it up a bit.

The best option of all is to mix your running with a series of cross-training, such as swimming or cycling, which are less taxing because they are lower-impact. But even walking or skating are good, as long as you are doing something active which uses either different muscles, or uses the muscles in a different way. Here’s a great video about overuse injuries and how to prevent them, by Dr Kyle Cassa of the Steadman Hawkins Clinic:

Bitten By The Running Bug
This was the main reason for my injuries last year: taking on too much, too soon! Running starts out as a real drag, as you try to build up your initial fitness. But after a month or two, you will notice improvements and maybe even notice yourself losing some weight. It starts to feel awesome, and you enter a few races. And because you don’t come last, you enter more races, and start training harder. Then you begin to increase your distances, and then – snap! Something breaks, and you’re injured and out of action for a few months.

The key is to take it steady. Increase your mileage very gradually, so aim for 10-15% increases in weekly mileage. And if you are new to running, just start off with a 1km run, or a run-walk session. Usually, it is harder for newbies to get injured by increasing mileage too quickly, because their cardiovascular fitness is often not great either. But if you are coming back from injury, having been a very good runner, your cadio fitness will want to push you further than your newly-repaired muscles want to go. So be careful if you are back from injury – baby steps. You will feel like you are not doing anything worthwhile, but actually you will be building strength back into those leg muscles. If you need a cardio workout, then get on your bike, or risk re-injury.

So to summarise, if you want to avoid most of the common running injuries, there are three things you must avoid doing:

Avoid bad, lazy or cheap equipment choice – especially running shoes!
Avoid running the same route on the same terrain time after time after time
Avoid trying to push yourself too hard too quickly