Part of the appeal of running—in addition to the calorie torching, social time with fitness buddies, and major mood boost—is that there’s not a ton of gear you need to buy, moves you need to master, or lingo you need to learn (though a little new vocab can help).
But just because you’ve been able to run since you were a toddler doesn’t mean it always comes intuitively, especially if you’re training for a race or trying to shave time off your pace. In fact, it’s pretty easy to screw up your gait or gear selection and wind up slow or injured. When it comes to form, pacing, and conditioning, there are a few mistakes runners at all levels tend to make, according to Jeff Gaudette, founder and CEO of Runners Connect, a platform for runners to link up with pros and coaches for help improving their performance.
Read on to see what they are, plus his best tips for correcting them so you can keep running your best and avoid injury.
1. Going too fast on a long training run
Yes, it feels amazing when you’re cruising through a long run—like you’re a gazelle, running on clouds. In those moments, putting on the brakes seems like a total bummer—but it’s really the best way to go. “The purpose of a long run is twofold: time on your feet and aerobic development,” says Gaudette. “The faster you run, the more you’re taking yourself out of that aerobic zone.”
And again, the faster you go, the more likely you are to get hurt—especially once you’re several miles in. “As you get farther into a run, your muscles get tired, form breaks down, and if you push the pace, you could wind up with an injury,” Gaudette explains. Instead, he recommends aiming to run 60 to 90 seconds slower per mile than your goal race pace. Think of that not as a mandatory rule but a speed limit: You can run slower, but don’t go any faster.
“Running too fast on what should be an easy day is probably the number-one mistake that I see runners making.”
2. Running hard on easy days
Speed workouts are good and challenge your body and make you a stronger runner. But you can’t do them every day—some workouts should be easy. “Running too fast on what should be an easy day is probably the number-one mistake that I see runners making,” says Gaudette. “The real purpose of an easy day is to deliver oxygen to your muscles and allow your body to recover. But if you run too fast, you’re tipping the balance from delivering oxygen to breaking down muscle fibers, so they can’t actually recover.”
Plus, he says, too much hard running can overwhelm your muscles and tendons and lead to injury. “You might feel good aerobically, but it’s still putting stress on your musculoskeletal system. And if you’re new to running, you haven’t developed the muscular strength to support the demand of those types of workouts—so it can lead to more injuries down the road.”
Most novices should have only one hard workout a week, possibly two if you’re more experienced. Fill out your week with three or four runs at an easy, conversational pace to boost your aerobic fitness and help your muscles bounce back fast.
3. Going out way too fast
When that gun goes off at the start line of a race, it’s virtually impossible to hold back and conserve your energy. Figuring out how to do just that is crucial for success from the marathon way down to 5K races. “If you go all out in a shorter race, like a 5K, you’ll go into your anaerobic system really quick,” says Gaudette. “It’s very hard for your body to get out of that, slow down, and run aerobically again.” If you’re running a marathon or a half, go out too quickly and you’ll burn through your energy reserves with many miles left to go.
To find a pace you can maintain, Gaudette advises breaking the race into thirds (especially for longer races). For a marathon, for instance, run the first 13 miles at an easy, conversational pace—the same long-run pace from your long runs in training. Then for the next 7 to 8 miles, pick it up to your goal pace. Finally for the last 3 to 5 miles, if you’re feeling good, go all out, he says: “That should give you a really good barometer about your fitness and goal pace for the next race.”
4. Going too fast uphill—and downhill
“Often inexperienced runners get to a hill and think they need to maintain their pace up it,” Gaudette says. “That really doesn’t work. You end up tiring yourself out.” Instead, he says, run by effort. Gauge your effort level on flat ground, then try to maintain that effort while going uphill (translation: You’ll slow down a bit—and that’s okay). That way when you get to the top of the hill, you won’t be zapped of energy and have to slow down to catch your breath.
People also often go too fast when running on a decline. “On the downhill, people try to make up time—but you’re always going to lose more time on an uphill than you’re going to make on the downhill,” says Gaudette. Plus, if you take big strides to speed down a hill, it puts your body in a bad position, which adds stress to your quads and cause knee pain. Take shorter strides and don’t push your pace until you get to another flat plane.
5. Hunching over up hills
When hoofing it up a hill, people tend to lean forward from the waist. Big mistake, says Gaudette, since it makes it harder to breathe and will, in turn, deliver less oxygen to your muscles. Instead, he recommends leaning forward from your ankles and maintaining an upright posture so you can breathe easily all the way up the incline.
6. Only running
No matter if you’re lacing up your running sneaks several days a week, it’s not enough to keep you fit and healthy. “New runners have to realize to become a long-term runner, strength work is still important,” says Gaudette. The good news: You don’t have to add a full hour of weight-lifting to your routine. Instead, Gaudette advises tacking on a mini strength workout (think: 10 minutes) after every run; focus on moves that strengthen your hips, glutes, and abs to support your runs and help prevent injuries.
7. Using new gear for a race
Even if you’ve worn a pair of shoes or a new tank top for some shorter runs, don’t even think about wearing it come race morning unless you’ve tackled a run close to the race distance in it. “We often don’t know exactly how something is going to feel and fit farther into a run—it could be that it’s not going to chafe you at 10 miles but will at 20 miles,” warns Gaudette. “A marathon is hard enough when you’re feeling good—you don’t need the added challenge of gear that’s painful.”