With warmer spring weather right around the corner, combined with a few wonderful weekends of 60-70˚ days, I have been seeing more and more runners out on the sidewalks and trails throughout Omaha. For some, the weather changes have likely been a chance to break free from the monotony of the treadmill or indoor exercise machines that are a mainstay for many people during the cold winter months. While for others, the warmer weather has been a call from mother nature to once again lace up their running shoes after a winter layoff from running. The opportunity to be outside and once again experience the joys of running can be irresistible. However, for runners who either new to running, did not maintain consistent running, primarily cross-trained, or used the winter as true “off-season,” returning to running this spring in a gradual and progressive fashion may help avoid over-training, excess fatigue, and injuries.
Runners hitting the trails this spring likely range from beginners with little to no consistent running experience, to weekend warriors ready to pick up where they left off last fall and conquer another schedule of spring, summer and fall races. While more experienced runners may be able to progress their training volume and intensity much faster than those who are new to the sport, a gradual progression that takes into account one’s current fitness level, recent training/running volume, injury history, and overall goals will help avoid common pitfalls encountered by runners of all levels. It has been reported that between 20-80% of runners sustain a running-related injury (RRI) each year.1 Studies have reported a variety of risk factors for developing a RRI, but two factors stand out as the most consistently linked to injuries in runners: previous running injury and training error.1,2
Armed with an understanding that previous injury and training errors are most likely to contribute to injuries, implementing strategies to decrease injury risk should be a priority for both novice and experienced runners. As an intrinsic risk factor, previous injury history cannot necessarily be modified, yet can be useful for structuring a running program. Knowledge of past injuries, their cause, symptom duration, effects on training, and strategies used to recover can help a runner better plan a training program to avoids some of the factors that may have contributed to past injuries. Training errors encompass multiple factors such as quickly increasing total running volume, frequency, distance, and intensity without allowing enough time for rest and recovery or consistent high running volume. The jury is still out on the risk factors and exact mechanisms leading to running injuries. Some research studies have reported an increased injury risk with higher weekly training distance, while other studies report a protective effect against injuries of maintaining higher weekly volume.2 No “one-size fits all” running program (days or miles per week, pace, workout combination) exists that will allow a runner to completely avoid injury, but planning ahead, gradual progression, and long-term thinking may help runners of all levels reduce their risk of injury.
With these conflicting research findings and lack of understanding about the risks and causes of many running related injuries, what’s a runner to do to avoid injury when return to running this spring? A few suggestions and considerations are included below to help plan out your return to running:
- Think about your past running experience
- How many years or months have you been a runner?
- What volume of running (days or miles per week) have you been able to maintain without injury in the past?
- What running volume were you at in the fall months before the winter “off-season” or decreased training period?
- Assess your previous injury history
- What injuries have you had in the past?
- What injuries have re-occurred more than once?
- Can you recall any factors or changes in your training or lifestyle leading up to the injury?
- Did the injury cause a decrease in the distance, frequency, or intensity of running?
- Did the injury necessitate a complete break from running in order to recover?
- Did the injury lead you to seek treatment from a health care provider such as a physical therapist or physician?
- Personal Factors
- What are your goals with running? (exercise, weight loss, social, racing, etc.)
- How much time are you willing to commit to running? (days per week, minutes/hours per day)
- Are there other lifestyle factors that may help or be barriers to running? (diet, sleep, family or work responsibilities, etc.)
Thinking about your answers to these questions can serve as a starting point when returning to running this spring. If you’re a new runner hoping to run your first 5k or get more exercise or a seasoned veteran gunning for a marathon or two this year, investing some thought and energy into the initial planning of your running program may help avoid training errors or making the same training decisions that may have led to injuries in the past. Your best training program is the plan that is individualized to your specific goals and takes into account your fitness level and past experience with running. While the specifics of running workout programming are beyond this article there are many online resources, training plans, couch to 5k programs, and smartphone apps that can provide a training plan framework that you can then individualize based on your responses to the questions above. Although running injuries are common, making an effort to reduce your risk and progress your training appropriately can go a long way in helping you stay injury free. If you feel like you may need additional help in developing a training plan that helps you achieve your goals and avoid injury you may also consider consulting with a running coach, personal trainer, or physical therapist who can help you develop your plan, reach your goals, and spring back into running!
- Malisoux L, Nielsen RO, Urhausen A, Theisen D. A step towards understanding the mechanisms of running-related injuries. J Sci Med Sport. 2015;18(5):523-528. doi:10.1016/j.jsams.2014.07.014.
- Van Gent RN, Siem D, Van Middeloop M, Van Os AG, Bierma-Zeinstra SMA, Koes BW. Incidence and determinants of lower extremity running injuries in long distance runners: A systematic review. Sport en Geneeskd. 2007;40(4):16-29. doi:10.1136/bjsm.2006.033548.