Twenty-two years. That’s how long I’ve been a runner, give or take a few months and miles. It’s hard to believe I’m old enough to have done anything for 22 years, let alone something athletic. I am, after all, a Former Fat Girl, who lost 70 pounds and have kept it off for 20 years or so. Not exactly voted “Most Likely to Marathon” in my high school graduating class.
Running is largely responsible for my “former” status, in fact. It’s a great calorie-burner, a social network tool (once you start lacing up your trainers regularly, you’re part of a club of millions), and an amazing self-esteem builder. That’s only a partial list of the reasons why my commitment to running has outlasted any job, house, state residency, and non-familial relationship in my life.
Over the years, I have learned a few things. I’ve had my aches and pains, ankle sprains and shin splints, plantar fascia flare-ups and illiotibial band episodes. I’ve talked to doctors and trainers and physical therapists and coaches—and many, many other runners—about how to run smarter and avoid injury. Here’s what I found out.
- Walk before you run. Beginner’s enthusiasm is GREAT. But temper your determination with a bit of patience to make sure you don’t push yourself too hard too soon. Sure, you might be able to make it through a three-mile run first time out, but you risk paying for it later. Beginners are better off using a walk-to-run program that alternates short periods of running with walking to build up your endurance and get your body used to the pounding that (unfortunately) running puts your body through.
- Build up slowly. Similarly, any time you want to bump up either the frequency or duration of your run, use the 10 percent strategy: Increase your mileage or duration by no more than 10 percent over the previous week. That allows your body to adapt slowly to the stress of additional miles, and helps prevent overuse injuries that can affect your knees, shins, feet, hips and back.
- Get stronger. For a time, I fell for the idea that since running was obviously working my leg muscles, I didn’t need to do any lower-body strength training. WRONG. Strength-training, particularly working the quadriceps muscles, can help correct muscle imbalances that could lead to injury. See, running does build muscle, but primarily the hamstrings and calves. Building your quads with squats, lunges and leg extensions will help them perform as shock absorbers, taking the some of the burden off of your knees, ankles and hips.
- Go shoe-shopping. Shoes are the most important piece of equipment for a runner, so don’t let yourself be swayed by matters of style or trends. Right now, there is more discussion about running shoes than ever. Many of the ideas about proper gait and stride that have formed the basis of running shoe technology over the last 20 or so years are being questioned by advocates of—can you believe?—barefoot running. That makes it all the more important to do your research and shop smart. Whether you’re a beginner or a long-time runner, it’s a good time to get a professional fitting at a running shoe specialty store. In most cases, staff are highly conversant in the latest technology and trends, are experienced runners themselves and offer the option of gait analysis. Staffers may also have a background in exercise physiology or athletic training. While you may spend more money than you would by shopping online or at a big-box sporting goods store, the individualized advice is worth it. Consider it an investment in your health.
- Run less. This, I know, is the last thing you want to hear when you’re a seasoned runner. Hey—I was there too. But here’s the thing: If you find yourself getting injured or waking up with back pain almost daily, cutting back on your mileage may be the answer. Consider, instead, doing shorter runs of higher intensity to lessen the strain on your body. Instead of a six-miler at a steady pace, try a three- or four-miler interval workout, alternating 2 to 3 minutes of faster running with 1 minute of slower recovery running. That technique challenges your cardiovascular system, boosts your calorie burn and gives your body a bit of a break.
- Warm up. A good warm-up will not only make your run feel easier—it will loosen up your muscles so strains and sprains are less likely to happen when you’re on the track, treadmill, trail or road. Before jumping on the treadmill, I like to do a 2- to 3-minute turn on the elliptical machine. On the road, I take off slowly and build speed over the course of the run, rather than going out full-tilt and struggling to finish.
- Get flexible. Speaking of stretching:While it’s completely important for avoiding running injuries, stretching before a run—or even after a short warm-up—has not proven to prevent injury. Better advice comes from Dr. Lewis G. Maharam, the medical director of the Rock ‘n Roll Marathon series and author of the book, Running Doc’s Guide to Healthy Running. He recommends aiming to be “globally flexible” rather than simply relegating stretching to those muscles most affected during your run. A daily, total-body stretching routine, plus a few key stretches after you run, should help keep you healthy, Maharam says.
- Cross-train. Taking up complementary sports can help correct muscle imbalances and contribute to your overall flexibility. I have recently taken up rowing, and found that the additional power in my legs has helped me run with less effort and less pain. Other great complementary exercises for runners are swimming, cycling, yoga, Pilates and rock climbing.
- Reassess your posture. A few months ago, I was lucky enough to spend a half-day with Danny and Katherine Dreher. The Drehers are pioneers in something called Chi Running and Chi Walking, techniques that borrow from Tai Chi forms and traditions to help you run and walk with less impact and less injury. The true technique takes time and dedication to practice (in fact, the Drehers refer to running as a “practice,” like yoga, rather than a sport). But ever since I adopted the few basic tweaks Danny showed me, I have been able to run—and run hard—without the lower back pain I previously had been experiencing daily. Most important: Engage your lower ab muscles while running, just slightly, as you would when you cough. And stand tall with the crown of your head reaching to the sky. I realized I had been sort of lazily collapsing into my lower back, allowing my back to arch and chin to lead, all of which, Danny says, contributed to my pain. I have learned to constantly monitor my posture, checking in mentally while I run, and it has paid off. While just a few months ago, I dreaded running, now I’m excited about my “practice,” determined to keep at it for another 22 years.