For Injury-prone Runners: Tips and Tricks

This post is prompted by a few recent discussions on how to prevent running injuries.  I am as injury-prone as runners come: a slew of biomechanical imperfections, a history of knee injuries, a comparatively larger frame, next to no sports in childhood and adolescence. When I started running a few years back, I was plagued by an endless string of injuries of all kinds, mostly to the formerly damaged right knee and the shin on the over-compensating left leg. The injuries got to be so annoying, at times I thought running was not for me.  I was 100% sure I could never run a marathon. Yet, over the last two years I trained for a 1/2 ironman and for a marathon nearly injury-free (knock on wood), and am now starting to dream of running ultras and other insane races like this one.

To stop getting injured: 

  • Firmly commit to staying healthy. For many runners, it takes discipline to go from having a mindset of getting faster no matter what to a mindset of staying healthy at the expense of possibly scaling back some of the performance goals. If you are writing your yearly goals down, I suggest writing, at the top of the page, that your goal is to stay healthy and to get through the year without hurting yourself. Err on the side of caution! Motivational literature, in particular, goes overboard in promoting unhealthy habits. The following quote, for example, is ubiquitous (13,000,000+ Google search results), yet it is dangerously untrue: “You will never regret a run that you did, only the runs you didn’t do.” Oh, yes, you will regret runs! – you will regret, bitterly, the runs your knee/shin/achilles heel/foot told you to not do.
  • To get faster, don’t run faster, run more. Pushing pace is one of the most common mistakes of beginner runners. This is the the one that got me in a lot of trouble when I first started running. As a beginner runner, to get faster, even in relatively short distances like 5K and 10K, you need to accumulate more mileage on your legs and you need to run longer distances. You will get faster as your muscles adapt to the motion of running, your bones and joints get stronger, and your overall mechanics improves. All of that takes time and a whole lot of slow, mindful, careful increase in mileage of the runs.
  • Be aware of that body tissue damage, like radiation damage, takes time to fully show up. Be very careful and conservative with pushing speed on longer runs. It may feel great during the run: I am so fast! Cue Eye of The Tiger, lets move it!. Yet you will often regret it the next day or the day after. Also, be nice to yourself for a few days after a challenging run and for a full week after a race. At those times, your body is recovering in places you do not know about. Let the body do its thing, don’t add more stress while it is still dealing with the consequences of your previous adventures.
  • Run on soft surfaces like gravel, treadmill, or track. It is only after spending 4 months in a place where 90% of my runs were on trails that I realized how much asphalt and concrete hurt you. Fellow urban runners! Humans evolved to run, as popular literature points out, sure. Human did not evolve to run on asphalt and concrete though. Track and treadmill might be boring, but your legs will thank you for putting up with the boredom. I fully credit being able to run the marathon last year to that I made a point of doing many runs, including portions of the long runs, on soft surfaces. I am doing it again this year. Treadmill is my best friend (and track is my buddy, too, its only that we live farther apart and I do not see him as much as my other friend).

Additionally, if you struggle with shin splits, make sure you get enough calcium. Give your body the material it needs to maintain your bones.

Strength training is oftentimes suggested for helping prevent injuries. I personally cannot recommend it because I tried it many times yet never learned to love it. I can never tell if it is helping me or hurting me. Many strength training exercises seem to hurt my knee, so I gave up on them completely for the time being, with the intent of revisiting them if needed later on. I do swim, though (which strengthens the core) and I love running hills (which builds leg strength). Perhaps these two workouts give me much of what a dedicated strength training routine would.

Stay healthy, friends!

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