Tips to prevent running injuries

Run enough and you’re bound to rack up some injuries, right? Not necessarily.

In my 15 years of running I've had five injuries. I don't count sore muscles, illness or hangovers. I’m referring to injuries that occurred while running and prevented me from running.

  • I pulled my groin when I tripped on a curb while running in London
  • Sprained my ankle while running on a beach
  • Injured my hamstring and calf when I kept running on tight muscles
  • Cut my knee badly and required stitches after falling on a rock
  • Pulled my quad after running too fast and too long during a race.

As you can see, three of those were accidents and having stronger stability and core may have prevented the sprains and pulls.

I’m an ultramarathon runner and have run more than 100 races ranging from 5km to 200+ miles. I don’t think five injuries is a lot given the amount of running I’ve done. I put this down to listening and reacting to the messages my body tells me.

In my experience, an injury presents in three stages.

1) Pre-injury. This is when you first feel a niggle, tightness or a little pain.

2) Minor injury. It is now affecting how you run and changing your stride.

3) Injured. You are now either unable to run, running is very painful or getting worst.

So how can you prevent an injury from reaching the stage three? I have no medical training and everyone is individual, but this is my advice based on lots and lots of running.

Listen to the niggle

As soon as I feel a niggle I go into recovery mode.

I will often stop mid-run to stretch for a few seconds and when I feel something tighten up I do a "body scan" to evaluate my posture and gait to see if anything is off. I will adjust my speed or stride length until things are feeling better or not getting worse.

My rule: If the niggle isn’t getting worse, I can finish my run. Otherwise, I walk it in.

Even a short walk break or stretch can help. Also hydration is importation. For me, overall tightness is usually a sign of dehydration, so check your hydration is good, especially over long distances.

Sometimes your body lies

Sometimes you body isn't 100% honest with you, especially when everything hurts for no reason. Don't worry if you have "hit the wall" or having a "low" - this is often your mind trying to say "what are you doing??"

Try one of these mind tricks to see if it's mental or physical.

First make sure your energy, hydration and electrolytes are OK by asking yourself some questions:

  • When did I last take in calories?
  • Have I been drinking?
  • Am I taking in any electrolytes, sports drinks, salty food, salt caps (especially relevant during ultras)?

Have a drink or something to eat if you need to.

Next try a pace change.

Either walk for one minute, then run again or sprint for 20-30 seconds, then slow down to your usual running pace.

You made need to try this two or three times.

Usually a pace change followed by returning to race or run pace will tell your brain that you know what you’re doing. This is known as flight or fight – your mind’s instinct is to protect your body and sometimes during a run your mind thinks you are crazy and doesn't understand why you are just running. Changing pace tells your brain that you’re in control.

If pain increases then walk and stretch and see if that helps.

I’ve been told that sometimes muscles misfire the electrical impulse that makes a muscle contract. It keeps firing the impulse, which causes the muscle cramp or remain tight. Stretching, hydration or a walk break can help reset the impulse and allow the muscle to release.

What happens if you don't to this?

It it’s just a tight muscle and you keep yanking at it and don’t give it a chance to release then it could start to tear and cause damage that takes time to heal. The pain will keep increasing until you allow it to recover. So that 20-second mid-run stretch run could save you weeks or months of down time.

My hamstring injury occurred 80 miles into the 100-mile Western States race, and I injured my quad after running for 205 miles during the Across the Years 72 Hour event.

Both times I didn't listen to my body and paid the price.

Active recovery

Sometimes the cause of the injury results in damage that needs time to recover. This isn’t an excuse to put your feet up in front of the TV and drink beer. I'm a strong believer in active recovery. It’s important to maintain a range of motion while recovering to prevent long-term issues. Light exercise that doesn’t cause more pain will often speed up recovery and help you return to pre-injury condition.

Working with a good physical therapist who understands running can help. But don't overdo any recovery exercise. If you are told to do 10 leg raises, don't do 50 thinking it will help. It won’t.

Remember: those exercises were prescribed by a medical professional so you should treat it like any other prescription. Don't overdose on recovery exercises.

Treat recovery like a race. Follow the recovery steps and don’t do too much or too little. The goal is to get better as fast as possible, even if it means doing less.

Your recovery period can also be a great chance to give something back to running. Volunteer at events or going along to cheer on your friends. It's really fun to be at the other side and you can still see all your running friends. They will love you more for being out there, and love is good for healing injuries.

A serious running injury (stage 3) is usually a result of running though the pain and it’s rarely worth it. Don’t do it unless it’s a key race and you are prepare for a lot of down time afterwards, or if you are being chased by a wild animal.

In my experience, both as a runner and spectator, running through pain doesn’t work out.

Alternative treatments

So what else can you do to prevent and manage running injuries?

I've had some great results with

  • Sports Massage
  • Physical Therapy
  • Sports acupuncture

Always get a recommendation from a running friend. Some medical professions don't understand us runners and you want to have someone who understands you and doesn't expect you to just quit running.

Most importantly: Listen to your body and do what feels right.