VII. Don't Race Or Do Speedwork Too Often
Researchers have found a correlation between injuries and frequent race efforts. This connection might extend to speedwork since intervals also require a near-maximal effort. So if you train fast once or twice a week and then race on the weekend, that's a lot of hard efforts without sufficient rest, particularly if you follow this pattern week after week. Some experts are cautious about recommending regular speed training for certain runners, especially those who get hurt easily. It's fine for those chasing podium placements or age-group awards. But for mid-and back-of-the-packers? "You might get five percent faster, but your injury risk could climb by 25 percent," Verran says. "That's a bad risk-benefit ratio. I think most runners can hit their goals without going harder than tempo pace."
Recognize that races take a heavy toll, so give yourself plenty of recovery time (one day for each mile raced). If you are trying to quicken your pace for a specific goal, add a weekly speedwork session to your training plan, but be judicious about it. Even Olympic gold medalists only do five to 10 percent of their training at 5-K race pace and faster. If you're coming back from an injury or have chronic issues you're fearful of aggravating, consider Verran's advice. Do your faster workouts at tempo pace (5-K pace plus 25 to 35 seconds per mile).
VIII. Stretch the Back Of Your Legs
Few running practices are as hallowed as stretching. And none have been debated as much in recent years. Studies have failed to reliably show that the addition of stretching to a warmup before activity reduces overuse injuries. "The jury's been out on stretching for about a decade," says Michael Ryan, Ph.D., a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "And as far as I can tell, it hasn't come in yet." Yet few experts in the field are ready to abandon stretching. The reasoning: Runners are tight in predictable areas, they get injured in and around these areas, and therefore they should increase flexibility in these areas. The muscle groups at the back of the legs — the hamstrings and calf muscles — stand atop most lists of "best muscles for runners to stretch." Hamstring and hip-flexor flexibility seems to improve knee function (several reports link poor hamstring and hip-flexor flexibility with "larger knee joint loads"), and calf flexibility may keep the Achilles tendon and plantar fascia healthy.
Little evidence indicates that stretching prevents overuse injuries. That said, knee and Achilles problems are among runners' most frequent complaints, and so experts recommend increasing the range of motion of muscles that can strain these areas if there is underlying tightness. Just don't do static stretches (holding an elongated muscle in a fixed position for 30 seconds or longer) before running. However, dynamic stretching can be done as a safe, effective prerun warmup.
IX. Cross-Training Provides Active Rest and Recovery
Running is hard on the body, although claims that it creates impact forces up to seven to eight times body weight are exaggerated, according to the experts I consulted. But they acknowledge the forces can reach two to three times body weight with each stride, and even more on downhills. It's no surprise that our muscles, joints, and connective tissues get weary from all this shock-absorbing. So experts agree that most runners benefit from at least one nonrunning day a week, and that injury-prone runners should avoid consecutive days of running. Cross-training offers a great alternative.
Use cross-training activities to supplement your running, improve your muscle balance, and keep you injury-free. Swimming, cycling, elliptical training, and rowing will burn a lot of calories and improve your aerobic fitness, but be careful not to aggravate injury-prone areas (see below).
X. Get Shoes That Fit
Running shoes have changed a lot over the years. They breathe better, are more likely to come in various widths, and are constructed from superior materials. Most important, there are far more shoes to choose from (racing, training, track, cross-country). There are even minimalist shoes designed to mimic barefoot running (although there's no scientific evidence that forgoing shoes decreases injury risk). This gives you more options. Of course, you still have to figure out which shoe will work best for you — not an easy task. "There's no single best shoe for every runner," says J. D. Denton, who has owned a Fleet Feet running store in Davis, California, for 14 years. Not only that, but it's impossible to say that shoe ABC will eliminate injury XYZ. Denton and his staff are careful to draw a line between giving medical advice and suggesting a top-notch shoe. "We're careful not to say, 'This shoe will cure your plantar fasciitis,'" Denton says. "Shoes aren't designed to cure injuries. Our goal is to make sure you get the shoe that fits and functions best on your feet."
Others are less cautious than Denton. They point out that while a given shoe isn't guaranteed to heal a given injury, the right shoe on the right runner can help. Verran says that he has been able to help patients overcome injuries by suggesting a better fit. "It happens all the time," Verran says. "It's a matter of finding the shoe that's right for a certain foot type."
Check out the Runner's World 2010 Spring Running Shoe Guide.
Don't expect shoes to correct an injury resulting from training error or muscular imbalance. However, when you need new shoes (replace them every 300 to 500 miles), go to a specialty store to get expert advice. As a general rule, buy less shoe rather than more shoe (unless you weigh 220 pounds or know you need the Monster Mash model). Studies show that shoes perform best when they fit best. Ask your shoe salesperson: "Why is this the best shoe for me?" If he or she can't provide a sound answer, find another store.