How to Avoid Injury Now That You’re Running Outside a Lot More Than Usual

Photo: Bose
One of the things that sets running apart from other forms of exercise is that you don't need any special equipment—apart from your sneakers—to do it. Now that gyms are closing temporarily to slow the spread of COVID-19, you may be upping your miles to keep your body moving. But what about wear-and-tear? Before you hit the pavement, it's important to know how to avoid running injuries now that you're doubling or even tripling your miles each week.

To help you get those lovely, mind-clearing and cardiovascular benefits of running without risking injury, we tapped Meg Takacs, trainer and founder of fitness app #RunWithMeg, and Cameron Yuen, DPT, a doctor of physical therapy at Bespoke Treatments in New York City, to tell us how to collect miles while social distancing without collecting injuries, too.

How to avoid running injuries now that you're pounding the pavement more often

1. Focus big time on your warm-ups

Warm-ups are important always, but especially when you're attempting to increase the volume of your runs. "Your warmup should increase body temperature," says Dr. Yuen. "This makes muscles, connective tissue, and blood vessels more compliant for activity." It will also help the blood move toward your muscles and away from your digestive tract (read: cramps be gone!).

"In the case of running, you will want to activate your calves, quadriceps, glutes, and obliques," says Dr. Yuen. Then, you're good to go the distance.

Your runner's warm up:

2. Follow a structured program that includes speed, endurance, and hill work

"I encourage people to follow a structured running program; one which puts variety in your workouts. Mixing up your runs —for example, slow endurance runs, speed work, and hill repeats, helps to not only prevent your body from plateauing, but also promotes the usage of both your anaerobic and aerobic pathways," says Takacs. That means you're both doing intense bouts of exercise that challenge your body's oxygen consumption for a short period of time (anaerobic) and increasing your endurance with longer, slower exercise (aerobic).

The takeaway? Rather than just doing the same five-mile loop again and again, find a hill to train on, a (preferably empty) parking lot to sprint across, and a longer route fit for your favorite podcast.

3. Build up your mileage slowly

Even though you have some extra free time on your hands right now, you don't want to go from zero to 60 (...or 3.1 miles to 26.2) in a matter of weeks. Pace yourself and be patient with the process. "During your runs, you want to build your mileage slowly," says Dr. Yuen. "If you're a casual runner who only runs two or maybe three days per week, an immediate spike to six days per week is asking for an overtraining pain or injury to develop."

Instead, aim to increase your run by about 10 percent on each go. "This 10 percent means an increase in either mileage or speed. If you increase every variable at once, you are also more likely to develop a problem from overtraining. This is a general rule of thumb, however, so you will need to tweak the exact percentage to avoid overtraining," he says. If you're currently running four-milers, try 4.4, then 4.8, and so on.

4. Leave at least 15 hours between each run

"I typically tell people to run at the same time each day or to strategically scatter in rest days to allow your body to recover," says Takacs. "It's important to put rest days after speed workouts or hill work to allow your body to recover, but you can do your long endurance runs the days after sprint or hill work, since there isn't as much of a strain."

What should you do during those 15 to 24 hour breaks? So glad you asked. Dr. Yuen says it's simple: recover, recover, recover. "If you are training more seriously, you need to take your recovery more seriously. There is a lot you can do to improve your overall readiness for exercise, but by far the most important is sleep. If you are running harder and more frequently than usual, you have to allocate more time to sleeping," says Dr. Yuen. Spend plenty of time cuddling your foam roller, massaging your muscles on a lacrosse ball, refueling with protein, and stretching, too.

Start that recovery now:

5. Don't abandon your cross-training

This one is so important, so listen up. "Injuries from running are usually due to the repetitive nature of the activity, so you will also want to stimulate your muscles, joints, and bones in different movements under different amounts of load," says Dr. Yuen. "So instead of running every day, you can alternate between running and yoga, bodyweight strength training, or Pilates."

Since running relies so much on core strength, Takacs also recommends throwing midsection workouts into the lineup so that you run fully engaged. "Core work is great for helping to improve posture so when you fatigue on long runs, your form isn't compromised by fatigue," she says.

Here's how runner-slash-dietitian fuels her runs, and the reason why a cardiologist just keeps signing up for more marathons. 

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