“I always loved running…it was something you could do by yourself, and under your own power. You could go in any direction, fast or slow as you wanted, fighting the wind if you felt like it, seeking out new sights just on the strength of your feet and the courage of your lungs.” – Jesse Owens
Because running is so enjoyable and can be done almost anywhere, the natural desire to push beyond easily achievable distances comes with risks of overuse and impact injuries. Try these tips that will allow you to increase running mileage without injury.
Easy does it
Although this may seem obvious, be cautious and slow when increasing your time running. Many follow the “10 percent rule,” avoiding increasing mileage by more than 10 percent per week. When you first start out, adding 10% might correspond to just a few minutes per week, but most runners can safely add five minutes to an established running session length, and one day per week compared to the week before even if that means adding more than 10% to total time. Those who increase mileage much more quickly than that sustain many more injuries than those who are more conservative in their increases.
When returning to running after a layoff of more than a few days, be conservative again. After a layoff of 1-4 weeks, start again at about half your old run volume and half the length of your long run for one week and then make a judgement based on how you feel about how quickly to build up again. 10% per week is generally safe.
An increase in mileage should also include an increased attention to proper form. How do you run? Upright? Hunched over? Which part of each foot strikes the ground first? Many injuries from running come from poor form which, fortunately, can be improved. Problems like heel-striking, stiff upper body, stiff hips and over-striding are some examples of poor form that can, with practice, be corrected, allowing you to get running more smoothly and with less chance of injury. Not sure about your form? Contact a coach in your area or attend a running clinic.
Listen to your body
You may be chomping at the bit to do more, but perhaps your knee twinges a touch, or you experience some shin splints. Any pain is a sign that you should ease up for a bit and postpone any increase in speed or distance until you’ve had several short, easy runs without pain.
Take days off in between runs
Increased demand on the body requires increased rest. Rest days allow your body to recover from the pounding impact that it experienced while running. Your muscles, tendons and ligaments can repair and become stronger. If you allow adequate recovery time between runs, you will come back to the next run a touch stronger, and healed up.
Run on an unpaved surface/ choose varied terrain
While running on pavement is okay for some, many runners find it leads to more frequent joint pain. I highly recommend running on unpaved trails if you have the option. Trails and sand are much more forgiving surfaces than paved roads or sidewalks. Also, consider the terrain. Running uphill is easier on your body, so it can be really good for reducing injury. Unfortunately what goes up must come down, and running downhill is not so forgiving. A great way to solve this problem is to run uphill and walk downhills at first. Once your body is more accustomed to the increase in mileage, you can increase running on the downhills. Remember to think “light feet” and try to land more on your toes, especially when descending.
Get good shoes
It is extremely important that your shoes fit your feet properly and that you aren’t increasing mileage in a shoe that’s compromising your comfort. Different people have different arch comfort and stability needs. Some people may have heavy pronation when they run, while others do not.
Have your needs assessed at your local running store. Get a professional opinion before purchasing shoes, but no matter what the salesman says, keep listening to your body. Make sure that the shoe feels right from the get-go. It should not be too snug on your feet as to push up against the tips or sides of your toes. It should also not be too loose — your feet should not have room to move around too much or slide on top of the insole in any direction. If anything starts to hurt when you run, take it easy. If you hurt in certain shoes but not others, toss the offenders or adjust them with insoles, wedges, lifts or whatever else is needed.
Running does not strengthen all parts of your body equally. Cross-training using core strength training, weight training, cycling and swimming can be a good way to balance strength in your body to better adapt to a mileage increase or to do instead of increasing run mileage.
Whether you are training for a specific event or just doing it recreationally, running is a rewarding sport. Because it can be so easy, especially if you are already aerobically fit from cycling or other training, many people do too much too soon and end up with an injury that forces them to stop running. Even if it is just a mild injury that causes you to have to stop running for a short period of time, it is a frustrating and unpleasant experience. Thoughtfully plan an increase using the tips above and you’ll limit the risk of injury.
Coach Leia Tyrrell is a triathlete and cyclist from Oregon who helps athletes include both running and cycling in their training regimens.