3 Myths & 7 Tips To Improve Running Performance and Prevent Injury

Why do you run? For some, it’s about setting goals or staying fit. Others love being part of the running community and the freedom running can provide. No matter the reason, the rewards are undeniable.

Developing muscle strength and aerobic capacity have benefits in the long term. Most runners live longer than non-runners.  According to a 21-year study, runners have longer lifespans and are less likely to develop a disability. What’s more, the downsides aren’t as bad as previously thought. Many runners think they’ll pay for abusing their knees, but studies show runners are no more likely to develop osteoarthritis of the knee than non-runners.  If you understand and maintain proper form, your risk diminishes even further.

Physical therapists are experts in restoring and improving motion in people’s lives and can help runners improve performance, prevent injury, and get back to running. And, if an injury does occur then a physical therapist can treat it. Many physical therapists are runners themselves and subscribe to a runner’s philosophy: It’s about hard work and constant improvement. Just because you have an injury does not mean your running days are over.

The Starting Line

Whether you’re returning to running or just beginning, it’s important to ease into a routine to allow your body to adapt. Gradually increase distance to establish a base of fitness. After you have developed a base of fitness you can gradually increase your speed and pace over time. Don’t set out to win your age group in your first race. This approach will likely lead you to an injury.

As you prepare for a race, listen to your body. Because your muscles are adjusting to the stresses of running, you may need to take a day or two off. It’s important to try to hit training program targets, but don’t stick so firmly to a program that you ignore warning signs and injure yourself. Increasing your weekly running distance by more than 10 percent from week to week can be unsafe.

Runners in their mid-30s and older should take age into consideration when returning to running or starting a regimen for the first time. Their bodies have changed and they must make adjustments to their training routines to accommodate these changes. Take time to adjust, and build your base mileage before training for a race. Ambitious goals can sometimes make you ignore pain, which can lead to injury.

Proper Training and Common Mistakes

Train well, race well. Making purpose and intensity part of training requires knowledge of proper training and form. Consider the following training myths:

Myth 1: Recovery is a break from training.

Recovery time isn’t a break from training, it is part of it. Runners, particularly those at the Master’s (40+) level, can consider taking recovery time every third week instead of every fourth week during a marathon training program. Consider using cross training, such as the elliptical or bike, to substitute for recovery runs to give your legs a break. This allows you to rest your legs while remaining on track for a successful race.

Myth 2: Push through the pain.

Runners know how to handle pain. But how do you determine what pain is normal and what is cause for alarm? Muscle soreness that eases as you run can be normal. However, pain you should be concerned about may have one or more of the following characteristics:

  • Pain that does not subside within several hours after running.
  • On a pain scale of 1-10 (10 being worse pain), pain that exceeds 3 while running.
  • The onset of sharp pain.
  • Pain that wakes you up at night.
  • Persistent pain that worsens when you run.
  • Pain that persists in the same area, every time you run.

A physical therapist can help determine the cause of the problem and recommend effective cross training exercises, identify when poor form may be contributing to your pain, and prescribe necessary changes in training to allow the body to repair itself. Read more about dealing with an injury on page 7.

Myth 3: You can zone out on a run.

Running can clear your mind and provide stress relief. However, thinking about your form while running can help you make subtle improvements. “Listen to how you run,” Gillanders advises. “Notice how you strike the ground. Does it sound the same on both sides, or is one foot strike louder? Notice where your foot lands relative to your body. Is it in front of you, or relatively underneath you, which is often less stressful? Recognize that as you fatigue, your form is more likely to be compromised.” Usually when a runner’s form is compromised mechanical stress increases and injury can soon follow.

Race Day

Race day is exciting, and sometimes nervousness and even nausea can set in. It’s not just 3.1 or 13.1 or 26.2 miles ahead of you: It’s a new course with unfamiliar curves and a pack of competing runners. Here are some tips for the week of the race that can help you do your best:

Leading Up to the Race

Tip 1. Wear your race-day shoes 1 to 2 weeks ahead of time to break them in and avoid blistering. Many runners successfully switch to lighter shoes on race day, but a shoe that changes your running style too much can result in unexpected pain.

Tip 2. If you can, survey the course a day or so before the race. Identify turns and hills ahead of time. This will enable you to visualize your effort on race day, and know how to pace yourself based on the terrain.

Tip 3.  Dodging people and avoiding the ones who are cutting in the first mile of the race can be frustrating and a waste of energy. Be sure you’re in the proper timing gate.

Tip 4.  Even though you’re tapering off your training 2 to 3 weeks before the race, it’s fine to go for a 30- to 45-minute run to keep your body loose.

Enjoy The Run!

Tip 5.  Races are energizing, so many runners get out of the gate too quickly. Watch your splits to make sure your planned 7:30 pace isn’t a 6.

Tip 6.  Be conscious of how you are running. Hills can be especially taxing.

Tip 7. Remember that protecting your body is more important than one race.  Pay attention to warning signs, such as sharp or unusual pain, and signal for help if you need it. Trying to run “through” pain often leads to compensations that can strain other parts of the body. No limping allowed! Remember that if the pain is too great, it is probably better not to push it. Focus on getting better and picking another target race.


Sources: American Physical Therapy Association; Chakravarty E, Hubert H, Lingala V, Fries J. Reduced disability and mortality among aging runners. Arch Intern Med. 2008;168(15):1638-1646.; 2. Chakravarty E, Hubert H, Lingala V, Zatarain E, Fries J. Long-distance running and knee osteoarthritis. Am J Prev Med. 2008;35(2):133-138; 3. Wu WH, Meijer OG, Uegaki K, Mens JM, van Dieën JH, Wuisman PI, Ostgaard HC. Pregnancy-related pelvic girdle pain (PPP), I: terminology, clinical presentation and prevalence. Eur Spine J. 2004;13(7):575-589

About the author

Sports + Orthopedic Leaders Physical Therapy & Performance Training serves the communities of Oakland, Alameda, Berkeley, Walnut Creek, Orinda, San Francisco and beyond. SOLPT’s award winning team of Physical Therapists, Performance Coaches and movement experts has helped thousands reach their rehabilitation and performance goals to move beyond pain. We're committed to helping anyone of any fitness level move effectively and more powerfully for a lifetime. We offer rehabilitation and performance services to all populations, with specialties in Sports Rehabilitation, Active Release Techniques, and Manual Therapy Techniques plus Personal and Small Group Training, Sport Clinics and Wellness Services.

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