Running is one of the most accessible, healthy and natural forms of exercise out there. But that doesn’t mean it’s free of pitfalls. It’s true. You can’t go too far wrong with running. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t numerous mistakes you can make if your goal is to run faster, better and stronger, to keep making progress, to avoid injury, and to still be a running strong for years to come.
We lift the lid on the most common running mistakes, so you can have a snag-free path to becoming a more awesome runner.
1. Ignoring Injury or Illness
It’s true, when you take a break you’re more likely to backslide into being a couch potato, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take a time-out when you need to.
Both illness and injury require rest if you’re going to make a speedy and complete recovery. Running through an illness or injury can often extend the time it takes to get better – not just by a few days but by weeks or even months. And if you’re injured – you risk your injury not healing properly at all.
Injury. Many running-related injuries are caused by overuse (see next running mistake!). These type of injuries can creep on gradually and initially cause nothing more than minor discomfort. However, if you ignore them and continue running, these minor aches and pains can become full blown injuries that take a long time to heal. So pay attention to any aches and pains. If a pain gets worse as you continue your running workout, it’s a warning sign that you should stop your run.
Illness. Tough workouts can compromise the immune system, allowing a virus to strengthen its hold. Research suggests that a long, intense workout can lower immunity for up to 9 hours. The body is already under stress because it’s fighting infection, so piling on additional stress with vigorous exercise is going to be counterproductive. Listen to your body and never be afraid to take an extra day or two between runs if you aren’t feeling 100%. The quality of your workouts is just as important as the quantity. So exercising when you’re not completely well isn’t going to give you a quality workout anyway.
2. Doing Too Much, Too Soon
Avoid the “terrible too’s”. Beginner runners tend to get overly enthusiastic and excited about running or think that they’re not improving fast enough, and so often end up running too far, too fast, too soon.
But “more is better” isn’t always true when it comes to running. Do too much too soon, and you risk developing overuse injuries, such as shin splints and ITB syndrome. Or your interest fizzles out and you give up. You didn’t get out of shape in 4 weeks, and you’re not going to get back in shape in 4 weeks. All good things take time.
Running isn’t about suffering and torment. Running should be somewhat challenging, but also enjoyable. If you’re just starting out be more conservative than you think necessary regarding how long, how often, and how much you run.
Pace. If you feel out of breath or ill, you’re running too fast. Slow down, take more walking breaks to recover or follow a beginners run-walk plan. You should train, not strain. Not huffing and puffing, or keeling over. You should pass the “talk test” – a great way to estimate how intense you’re exercising.
Distance. Increase your mileage slowly and gradually. Don’t increase your mileage by more than 10% per week.
Frequency. Have at least one complete rest day (from all exercise) every week. Rest days are important for recovery and injury prevention. Remember that your muscles repair themselves and grow stronger during your rest days.
Remember, running isn’t the only exercise out there! Incorporate some cross-training activities into your workout schedule. By doing exercise other than running you’ll avoid boredom and work different muscles, giving your running muscles a break.
3. Poor Posture
Running is easy. After all you’ve been doing it since you were a toddler. But that doesn’t mean you’re running in a way that will get you the most bang for your buck (e.g. running efficiently) or running in a way to minimise muscle soreness and injury. There’s always a way to do something better!
When running you want to avoid slouching and leaning forward. Good running posture can be summed up quite simply. Run tall! And avoid the temptation to overstride, as it will put extra strain on your knees.
Check out how to run – proper running form for an easy overview on how to run properly.
4. Ignoring Your Weaknesses
Runners love to run. But most runners only ever do the type of running they enjoy the most. All runners have strengths. All runners have weaknesses. Some of us love to keep our runs short, sweet and intense, while others like it slow, long and steady. Be you speedster, endurance lover, or somewhere in between, identify your strengths and weaknesses and use it to maximize your performance.
To become a complete runner, you need to work on your weaknesses. What are your weaknesses? Often the things you enjoy least! Hate running up hill? Maybe you need to work on your strength. Incorporate a strength training routine and some hill runs! Grow tired towards the end of a long run? Maybe you need to work on your endurance. Try adding in some long runs. Got no “kick” at the end of a race? Add in a little speed and interval work. Your body type can also be a clue as to the type of runner your are. Ectomorphs for example tend to be long-distance runners, while mesomorphs tend to love speed and like to keep their runs on the shorter side.
You needn’t do too much. Workouts that focus on your weaknesses are tough and take a toll mentally and physically. So keep those workouts shortish and infrequent. The bulk of your workouts should focus on your strengths. It’s enjoyable. It’s what you’re good at. And it’s what you’ll do. Just don’t ignore your weaknesses entirely.
5. Not Setting Goals
Why do you run? Is it to get fit or to lose weight? Maybe you want to feel healthier? Or maybe you want to run a race? These are all great goals, but too general. You need to expand on it. Your goal should be something to aim for; it should keep you motivated and give your training focus week after week, month after month and year after year.
So set yourself SMART goals. SMART is an acronym for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Recorded and Time-bound. Making your running objectives SMART can make all the difference between simply wanting to achieve something and actually achieving it. A smart running goal could be something like – “I want to improve my personal best in the marathon by 2 minutes over the course of 5 months”, or “I want to run 30 minutes continuously in 2 months”.
6. Neglecting Strength Training
Runner’s love to run. The problem is that runner’s generally only want to run. As exercise goes, running is hard to beat but it doesn’t address every aspect of your fitness. Your exercise routine should be holistic, which means cardio, strength and flexibility training (see next).
Running makes your cardio-respiratory system strong. But you also need to be structurally strong. To be a good runner, to be healthy and to avoid injury you need to have strong muscles, tendons and ligaments. Not just a strong heart and strong lungs.
So strength training should be a key part of your weekly workout schedule. It allows you to strengthen your muscles, ligaments and tendons to make you stronger, fitter, better runner.
The good news is that a little goes a long way. A mere 15 to 20 minute strength workout geared toward runners twice a week is generally enough.
7. Forgetting To Stretch
Strength and endurance are important for runners, but so is flexibility. Running is an activity that is very repetitive and has a relatively short range of movement. This can lead to short, tight muscles, which over time can lead to muscle imbalances, poor running performance, and if you’re prone to them – the dreaded (and vastly painful) muscle knots.
When you’re flexible your body has a greater range of motion, it is more efficient, it can make better gains in endurance and strength, it’s less prone to injury, recovers faster, and simply feels better!
Stretching only takes a few minutes but can save you weeks of missed training.
Stretch after you run, not before. Or stretch later in the evening. Stretch (but don’t strain) your calves, quads and hamstrings for a total of 10 to 15 minutes.
If your flexibility poor consider doing additional stretching sessions throughout your week. If you suffer with muscle knots try foam rolling to help release them. Be sure to always warm-up (dynamic warm-up) before and cool down properly after a run.
A favorite stretch of runners is the runners lunge:
Take a large step forward and bend your front knee. Lower your rear knee to the ground. Make sure your front shin is and remains vertical to the ground. Keeping your torso upright, slide your rear leg backwards and allow your hips to sink down towards the floor. Hold the deepest position you can comfortably hold for 30 to 60 seconds before changing legs and repeating.
The runners lunge stretches your hips and can undo much of the shortening affect of running. If you feel your hips lack mobility and/or you spend long hours sitting at a desk or in your car, perform this stretch a few times a day to keep your hips supple and healthy.
8. Not Tapering Your Training
When you run you want to get better at it – to constantly improve. To run faster, further, longer. To continue progressing as a runner, vary your training and start thinking in terms of training seasons or cycles.
Improving your running is like a dance routine – three steps forward and one step back. The step back – a period where you coast a little and back off on training intensity and volume – allows your body to recover between harder periods of training. So be sure to incorporate a periodic rest week into your training, for example one week in every six. These mini-breaks will prevent you hitting a performance plateau and reduce your risk of suffering overuse injuries.
Take a break before you need a break and your running will improve slowly, surely and consistently.
9. Poor Lifestyle Habits
The health benefits of running are immense, but it’s just one part of all the things that make up a healthy lifestyle. No matter how hard you try, you can’t outrun unhealthy habits!
Avoid these mistakes:
- Insufficient sleep – shoot for 7-9 hours per night
- Eating a nutritionally-poor diet. To power your body through your running workouts aim “eat clean” i.e. plenty of fresh produce, lean meat and healthy fats. Avoid processed foods, excessive fat and sugar, fad diets and very low calorie diets. You need energy and nutrients to run.
- Too much stress. Avoid excessive stress when you can and learn to manage your stress levels through stress-reducing techniques.
- Smoking. If you haven’t already, it’s time to cut down and quit. Exercise doesn’t make up for smoking. Nor does exercise make up for a bad diet or for being overweight. Exercise mitigates the health risk of inactivity. That’s all. Smoking (like the other health risks) is a separate health risk, and no lifestyle change – including exercise – can counteract its effects, apart of course from giving it up.
- Excess alcohol. Moderate amounts of alcohol may help improve cardiovascular health but too much is definitely a bad idea. So cut down for the sake of your liver, brain and belly.
- Not drinking enough water.
If you get all your exercise and lifestyle ducks in a row it’s like 2 + 2 = 50! You’ll get so much more from your running workouts, your energy levels will soar and you’ll feel far more healthy. Running is great but it is not a “cure all” that will allow you to abuse your body and ignore the rest of your lifestyle. Pay attention to the things you do when you aren’t running and you’ll find your running will vastly improve.
When and what you eat before, during, and after your runs also has a huge impact on your running performance and recovery. Check out what to eat before, during and after a workout.
10. Running Shoe Woes
Over time running shoes lose their supportive and cushioning ability, which can lead to changes in running gait and even injury.
Change your running shoes on a regular basis and not simply because they’re looking dirty and worn. External signs of wear and tear are not a always a good indicator that your shoes are past their best as the materials that cushion and support your feet are on the inside and so not visible. By the time you can see the midsole material poking through the outsole or once the sole under the heel looks crushed, the running shoes are long past their prime.
It’s hard to tell exactly how long a pair of running shoes will last – it depends on a number of factors including your weight, running style, and preferred running surface. But most experts agree that you should replace your shoes every 300 – 500 miles.
If after a regular run it feels as if your running shoes aren’t providing you adequate protection, they probably aren’t! Most runners replace their shoes too late.