Not much is worse than getting injured and being sidelined from your favorite sport for a few months.
“Knee pain, tendon and fascia strains in the foot and ankle, IT (iliotibial) band pain and hip pain are some of the most common running-related issues we see,” says physical therapist Bruk Ballenger, a lifelong runner and co-owner of Real Rehab Physical Therapy in Seattle.
According to Ballenger, up to 80 percent of running injuries can be blamed on overuse, where the runner increased his or her training volume, intensity or frequency too rapidly. But the underlying cause is almost always biomechanical (the mechanics of your body and how it responds to increased activity).
The good news: There are some easy steps you can take before, during and after you run (or really any workout) to help keep any and all injuries at bay.
1. Warm up before you work out
“Easing your way into every run will help increase flexibility, muscle function and joint lubrication,” says Ballenger.
Try walking at an easy pace, gradually increasing your speed to a slow jog over 5 to 15 minutes, or start with a short bout of low-impact cardio, like cycling or the elliptical machine. You can also add on a few dynamic stretches, like walking lunges or high knees, in order to increase muscle and joint flexibility before your run.
2. Focus on your form
Try to keep your running cadence at around 85 to 95 footfalls per minute. Land with your foot underneath you (rather than in front), strike with your midfoot or forefoot, and stand tall with a slight forward lean from your hips as you stride.
“You should consider having a running analysis done by a coach or physical therapist to learn if you have any biomechanical issues you need to work on,” Ballenger said.
3. Find a good training plan and stick with it
“If you’re training for a race that is significantly longer or harder than what you’re used to, be sure to find an appropriate training plan and follow it closely,” said Ballenger.
The plan should increase volume and intensity gradually, and have plenty of rest days built in each week, with intermittent periods of lower volume training.
4. Stretch properly
You’ll benefit most from static stretches—gently holding a position for 30 to 60 seconds—immediately after you run, while you’re still warm. Target your hamstrings, hip flexors and calves with these post-workout moves.
Hamstrings: Stand in front of a chair (or bench, or step) and place your right heel on top of the seat with your leg fully extended. Keeping your back straight, hinge forward from your hips until you feel a stretch in the back of your thigh. Hold the position for 30 to 60 seconds, then switch legs and repeat.
Quads and Hip Flexors: Kneel on your right knee with your left knee bent at 90 degrees and your left foot on the floor in front of you. Reach back with right hand and grasp the top of your right foot. Keeping your abs engaged, back tall and chest open, gently press your hips forward until you feel a stretch along the front of your hip and back thigh. Hold the position for 30 to 60 seconds, then switch sides and repeat.
Calves: Stand facing a wall, about two feet away. Lunge your right foot straight behind you with your left (front) leg slightly bent. Hinge forward from your hips and place your palms against the wall at shoulder level in front of you. Hold for 30 to 60 seconds, feeling a stretch along back of your calf. Then stand up, bring your right leg a few inches closer to the left (or front) foot, and bend both knees slightly, feeling a stretch closer to your ankle. Hold for 30 to 60 seconds, then switch sides and repeat.
5. Cross train
In order to prevent injury, you must perform exercises that address the muscle imbalances that come as a direct result of running.
“Developing strength and coordination in the glutes and core in particular will go a long way,” said Ballenger. For the best results, do these exercises three times a week.
Hip Hikes: Stand with your right foot on a small block or step, with your hands on your hips. Without bending your knees, touch your left foot to the floor, and then lift your left hip as high as possible. Do 25 repetitions, then switch sides and repeat.
Bulgarian Squats: Stand with your back facing a block (or step), about two feet away. Extend your left leg behind you, placing your toes on top of the block, pushing back with your heel. Keeping your back straight and abs engaged, bend your right knee 90 degrees, dropping your left knee toward the floor. Engage your glutes to stand up. Do 15 repetitions, then switch legs and repeat.
Side Plank Lifts: Lie on your left side with your hips and legs stacked, and your left forearm perpendicular to the floor, with your elbow under your shoulder and your right hand on your hip. Engage your abs and lift your right leg a few inches. Hold the position for 5 seconds, and then slowly lower your leg. Do 20 repetitions, then switch sides and repeat.