Running may be one of the simplest fitness activities to pick up — you just need a pair of shoes and the open road — but it’s also hard on your body if you’re not used to it.
I spoke with Jason Fitzgerald, a running coach (and longtime friend of Lifehacker) who specialises in helping runners avoid injury. Here are some tips — backed by evidence and his years of experience — on how to avoid getting injured at the beginning of your running journey.
Ramp up slowly, even if you feel fine
If you start running now (and stick with it), this time next year your body will be different in several ways. You’ll have a stronger heart and lungs. Your muscles will be stronger and have better endurance. Your bones will be a little more dense, and your tendons and connective tissue will also be stronger. Right now, you have none of that.
Each of those body systems adapts to exercise at their own pace. Maybe your lungs felt fine on yesterday’s run, but now your muscles feel sore. Your muscles have to pull on your tendons with each step, and tendons are among the slowest to get with the program. They’re the site of many common running injuries.
All this means that you have to ramp up slowly. If you did three short runs in your first week, you shouldn’t double that for week two — even if you feel fine. “Progress takes more time than you think it will,” says Fitzgerald, and most people need to rein themselves in and do less than they feel they need to.
What a good beginner routine looks like
There’s a reason couch to 5K is a popular training plan for beginner runners: it ramps up slowly enough that many people can avoid getting injured. But everybody is different, and it’s definitely possible that for some folks, this program moves too fast.
The reverse is also true: if you have good fitness to start with, you might get bored with a beginner plan and find yourself running too much and setting yourself up for injury anyway.
Ideally, as you start running, your workouts would include:
Most or all of your runs at a pace that feels “comfortable, controlled, and conversational.” (Beginners may need to walk a bit to keep the pace that easy.)
Exercise that is not running, if you feel that the above isn’t enough for you. Cycling and other cross-training can work your lungs and muscles without putting too much strain on your tendons and ligaments.
Strength training, to help everything get stronger and more adaptable.
In an ideal world, you might start strength training before you begin running, but Fitzgerald says it’s fine to start everything at the same time. Just keep your total training intensity manageable — this isn’t the time for lots of HIIT classes.
It’s not your form, or your shoes
It seems unfair that we could get injured without doing anything wrong. So we look for something to fix. But if you started running (or increased your running) in the last few weeks or months, you probably have nothing to blame but the fact that you’ve been doing too much, too soon.
Browse any forum where runners can overthink their problems, and you’ll see beginners with a classic too-much-too-soon backstory posting videos of themselves running on a treadmill and asking for a “form check.” Or they’ll want to talk shoes: they have this pair, but would they stop getting injured if they switched to that pair?
Your form will improve on its own
“Most beginners don’t have great form,” says Fitzgerald. That’s normal, and it’s not actually a problem. It would take a lot of time on your feet for bad form to actually cause injury, and as a beginner, you’re just not running that much.
Even if your running looks a little wonky, you won’t get far by consciously trying to move your legs or feet a little differently. Experienced runners tend to have a smooth, fluid, perfect-looking stride, but they didn’t get that way by perfecting their form and then starting to run.
You kind of have to let your body teach itself good form. (And your good form may look different from another runner’s, because every body is different.) Fitzgerald points out that you get more efficient over time, and that’s what we see as “good form”: “If you run 16km a week, you’re not giving your body enough practice. But if you run 16km a day, your body has to figure out good mechanics to survive.”
If you’re impatient to tweak something, count your cadence. If you take fewer than 160 steps per minute (or 170 if you run faster than a 10 minute mile), you’re probably leaping from foot to foot rather than keeping your legs under you in a running motion. Take smaller steps, and your body will find its most efficient form a bit sooner.
Don’t overthink your shoes
Shoes are another thing that’s easy to blame, but again, your mileage has a lot more to do with injury than with the tiny ways that, say, arch support can differ from shoe to shoe.
All you need to know at the start is that a shoe that feels good when you run is the right shoe to wear. Doesn’t matter if it’s the top-of-the-line model recommended by a running store employee who videoed your running form on a treadmill, or the old flat sneakers you found in the back of your closet.
“Any running form analysis that’s done in a shoe store, with just a running store employee, is not a real running form analysis and you’re not going to learn anything,” Fitzgerald says.
“There’s no force plate, there’s no slow-motion camera, you’re not in a running lab being filmed in three different directions and having your form analysed by a fancy computer. The metrics that you’re trying to measure require that amount of detail and precision with measurement, or else they’re not going to mean too much.”
Even if you did have that level of detail about your running form — which, remember, is going to change as you get more experienced — research shows that it doesn’t actually help you avoid injury.
The best way to choose shoes? Try on a bunch, and run for a minute or two in each one. That’s the real reason to shop at a running store: they’ll either have an in-store treadmill or they’ll let you run around the block.
Know when to stop
If you do end up hurting, it helps to know what kind of pain is usually fine to run through, versus what needs to be looked at.
Only a doctor can give you medical advice, but here’s a general idea of what runners tend to run through:
Muscle soreness, because it’s normal, and it will go away in a few days no matter what you do
An ache that’s uncomfortable but not really painful
Discomfort that feels better as you run—this is a sign that running isn’t making it worse
More concerning injuries, that Fitzgerald recommends not running through, include ones that:
Feel like a sharp, stabbing pain
Cause you to limp or change your gait
Get worse as you run
Seek advice from a coach or trainer if you have one, or visit a health professional who’s familiar with running injuries if your injury seems serious. But with luck, and some good planning, hopefully you’ll be able to avoid those beginner injuries in the first place.