Running is a great workout that can help you strengthen muscles, burn calories, improve your mood, and reduce your risk for heart disease. Plus, you don’t need to buy a lot of fancy equipment. Running really only requires a pair of running sneakers and the motivation to get started. But before you hit the pavement, you should be aware of some of the most common running mistakes that can lead to injury — and how to avoid them.
Mistake 1: Logging too many miles too quickly
Running too much too soon can lead to overuse injuries, like muscle strains, stress fractures, and tendinitis. "Running is one of the harder sports to start in terms of an exercise regimen," says Michael Fong, MD, program director and physician in charge of sports medicine at Kaiser Permanente’s Los Angeles Medical Center. "You need good muscle flexibility in your thighs, hamstrings, and calves, and you also need good hip and core strength." So, if you begin by doing too many miles too quickly, and your body isn’t used to that level of intensity or stress, it can cause your tendons to inflame and your muscles can overstretch and become strained.
Avoid it: Overuse injuries happen when you do more than your muscles can handle. If you’re new to running, it’s best to gradually increase your mileage and intensity. Dr. Fong recommends starting at a low mileage, anywhere from 1 to 3 miles. "A good guideline for increasing mileage is no more than 10% of the previous week’s mileage," he says. For example, if you run 3 miles, 3 times a week for a total of 9 miles a week, the following week you can run 9.9 miles.
You should also build in rest days. This means you don’t run on consecutive days. These days off give your muscles and body crucial time to recover. If you run 3 times a week, you’d do Monday, Wednesday, and Friday or Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. On rest days you don’t run but you can do other exercises like cycling, swimming, or weights.
Mistake 2: Shoes that don’t fit properly
Wearing shoes that don’t fit right is a common running mistake that can lead to injury. "If your shoes are too loose it can cause nail injuries and blisters along the feet," says Dr. Fong. And shoes that are too tight can result in discomfort like bruising and blisters. Also, wearing shoes made for other sports can cause problems. "For example, wearing tennis or court shoes for running can cause stability issues and lead to ankle sprains and soft tissue injuries," he says.
Avoid it: Use a shoe made specifically for the sport of running. And then make sure your shoe fits comfortably and is the right size. "A good rule of thumb for running shoes is that your longest toe should touch the very front of the shoe with a little wiggle room," says Dr. Fong. "And you should be able to move all your toes easily in the shoe." If you can’t move your toes, the shoes are too tight. If your heel slips out, the shoes are too big.
Mistake 3: Incorrect running posture
Leaning too far back or slumping too far over is considered bad running form. Using incorrect posture as you’re running can lead to neck, shoulder, and lower back pain. It can also make you feel tired faster.
Avoid it: Keep a straight, upright posture when you run. "You can have a slight forward lean, like 5 to 10 degrees," says Dr. Fong. You also want a relaxed arm swing with elbows flexed around 90 degrees. Your arms should swing by your side, not across your body. When your arms are in the right position, it helps you run more efficiently.
Mistake 4: Inefficient foot strike
Foot strike is the way you land on your foot each time you take a step. Landing on your heels (also called heel striking) puts repeated stress on your heels, shins, and knees. "When you’re running, it’s safer to land on the forefoot (the front part of your foot) or even midfoot," says Dr. Fong. "I encourage heel strikers to become a forefoot or midfoot runner."
Avoid it: In terms of mechanics, landing on the forefoot is the most efficient way to run. "Think of your feet as shock absorbers or springs when you’re running," says Dr. Fong. "Your foot is a better shock absorber if you run on the forefoot of your feet. You can’t
run very fast if you’re running on your heels — it’s just not mechanically possible to get good speed," he explains.
Mistake 5: Running uphill and downhill too soon
If you’re new to running, taking on hills can be tough on your joints. "Running uphill can put a lot of stress on your Achilles tendon and calf muscles," says Dr. Fong. And running downhill puts added impact on your knees and thigh muscles, which can lead to injury.
Avoid it: Dr. Fong suggests getting your body used to running on flat terrain first. Run at a park that’s flat with grass or dirt, or try a high school or college track. You can also use a treadmill on the flat setting. As you get stronger, you can add in hills once your body can handle the increased intensity.
Mistake 6: Not cross-training
Whether you’re a newbie or a seasoned runner, you need good hip and core strength. If you’re weak in your hips and core, it can affect the alignment of your legs and knees and put too much stress on your joints.
Avoid it: "To help your running workouts overall, you should be cross-training to build up your hip and core strength on rest days," says Dr. Fong. This includes stretching, strength training, and core exercises like planks and leg lifts. Spending your off days doing other exercises to strengthen your muscles and increase and maintain flexibility will help you avoid common overuse injuries from running.
Remember to take it slow and ease into your running routine. It doesn’t matter how fast you run or how many miles you log. The most important thing is that you aim for 150 minutes of moderately intense activity per week. If you feel any pain or injury, talk to your doctor. You can also prevent unnecessary running injuries by avoiding these common workout mistakes. And of course, don’t forget to stretch before and after each run. Click here for some good thigh, hamstring, and calf stretches for runners.