We’ve all heard it before: warm up, listen to your body, build gradually. And yet, after lacing up and seeing the open road ahead, new runners tend to go all out. But pushing past the point of exhaustion and racking up the miles too soon only leads to injury. To ensure a strong, pain-free finish, use the tips below to reduce your risk of running error on the track, road, or trail.
Mistake: Stretching too deeply during a warmup
You know how crucial it is to stretch. But you also need to know not to take it too far. Instead, save moves like deep lunges, butterfly holds, and hand-to-toe hamstring pulls for a post-run release. If you’re running a long distance, like a half marathon, deep stretching during a warm-up could do more harm than good, says Keith Jeffers, D.C., C.C.S.P. For example, having someone push you forward for a deeper stretch fires off spindle cells and golgi tendon organs, which can make your muscles feel sluggish—meaning it’s tougher to get moving.
Fix: Walking it out
Warm up with a 3-5 minute gentle walk followed by a five-minute run-walk, says Jeff Galloway, an Olympian who has coached more than 1 million runners to their goals. If your usual run:walk ratio is a 3:1—where you run three minutes and walk one—use the first five minutes of warm-up as a chance to slow things down to a 1:1 ratio. Then, gradually ease into running slowly for another five minutes before picking up the pace and moving into your goal for the day.
Mistake: Jumping in too quickly
If you’re fresh off the couch, give yourself enough time to train and prepare. “The first week looks great because your body is fresh from not being active, but during the second and third week, the body starts to break down,” says Jenny Hadfield, running coach and author of Running for Mortals: A Commonsense Plan for Changing Your Life with Running. Doing too much too soon can lead to common overuse injuries such as shin splints, knee injuries, IT bands, overall fatigue, and burnout.
Fix: Integrate running into your cross-training routine
If you’re a pretty active person but a new runner, you’ve probably got the cardiovascular fitness but haven’t mastered the biomechanics of impact running. So give yourself 6-8 weeks of running 3-4 times per week on a regular basis before jumping into a half-marathon training program, says Hadfield. Your best bet: weave running into an activity you’re currently doing. Turn a 40-minute bike ride into 15 minutes of cycling followed by 10 minutes of running and finish off with 15 additional minutes on the bike. Because our bodies are designed to come back stronger in response to small amounts of change, once you’ve hit your groove, you can start increasing mileage slowly. Increasing your mileage by increments of 1-2 miles at a time can be made as long as the pace of the run is two minutes slower than a runner’s marathon time, says Galloway.
Mistake: Pushing yourself too hard
Sure, it will get you to the finish line faster, but speed work isn’t always your friend. Pushing too hard out on your runs, too frequently, can lead to overuse injuries like shin splints, stress fractures, and sprains. After a grueling workout, give your body a break in order to come back strong. If you’re new to running, build a foundation of cardiovascular and biomechanical fitness through a run-walk program.
Fix: Create flow
Weave together hard and easy days to get the most out of your workout. Follow a challenging workout with a lighter day at the gym. If you do rigorous interval workout today, following it up with another challenging workout slows down recovery in the adaptation phase. Not sure about your current effort level? Just breathe. “Your breath is the No.1 thing you can tune into that will tell you how hard or easy you’re working out,” says Hadfield.
Mistake: Running according to a pace
Focusing on pace alone can be deceiving and derail your workout. A tempo run with headwind could make a normal 8:30 pace much harder than usual, and trying to maintain it could push you past the red line fitness level—the point where your body starts to use more glycogen versus oxygen, says Hadfield. At that point, you’ve negated the tempo workout and turned it into an interval run.
Fix: Run according to perceived effort
Don’t measure your mileage by setting an eight-minute pace—try going for distance instead. “Pace has nothing to do with what’s going on in your body,” says Hadfield. “If you want to run with purpose, it’s truly about the effort level.” It’s OK to monitor your pace, but it’s the outcome of the workout rather than the goal. Aim to have your effort level alternate between three zones: yellow, orange, and red. At yellow, you should be able to hold an easy, conversational pace; at orange; you’re down to blurting out one-word answers; and when you’re in the red zone, you don’t even want to think about talking.
Mistake: Diving into speed work
Slow down, fast feet. The only time you need to run for speed is when you’re training for a time goal, like getting seeded for a 10K or qualifying for Boston. Then, speedwork is key in enabling the body, mind, and spirit to perform at a higher level.
Fix: Build up gradually
While there’s always a slight breakdown of ligaments, tendons, muscle cells, and fibers, a gradual increase allows the body to repair the damage and rebuild stronger. Only run at a pace that’s 30 seconds/mile faster than your goal pace for the race. After each repetition allow for a rest interval to allow the body to recover. For a 5K or 10K, walk ½ a lap. For a ½ marathon, walk for three minutes. For a marathon, allow for a five-minute walk break.
Mistake: An unnatural posture
Improper form is usually a result of runners trying to assume an unnatural posture. Most people run upright—head over shoulders and hips—and yet they decide to lean forward because a friend says it helps, says Galloway. An unnatural lean can cause back, neck, and hip pain.
Fix: Go natural
Ditch the fads, and run in a way that’s natural for you. Look ahead, keeping your upper body relaxed and upright. Maintain a short stride length; land mid-foot and work toward a quicker cadence. With those pieces in place, your body will automatically settle into its gait, and you’ll find that natural rhythm your body craves.