Every runner hopes to avoid injuries, boost their fitness and improve their overall health, but whether newbie or pro, all runners are vulnerable to missteps that can dash those goals. Don't fall prey to hubris.
"Any runner who reads the list of mistakes will agree with every tip the experts offer," says Matt Fitzgerald, sports nutritionist and author of The New Rules of Marathon and Half-Marathon Nutrition. "But there will be those who believe, with every fiber of their being, that they don't need to follow [the advice] because it just couldn't possibly apply to them."
Read on to make sure you're not sabotaging yourself with some of these common running mistakes.
1. Increasing Mileage Too Quickly
Whether you're ramping up mileage or speed, doing too much too soon is one of the biggest causes of injury. While you may think that more always equals better, Jamie Glick, director of Glick Physical Therapy and a marathon runner, warns that increasing more than 10-percent each week puts you at a higher risk for injury and burnout.
"The general rule is to increase your mileage by no more than 10 percent each week," says Chris Mosier, coach at Empire Triathlon Club in New York. This allows runners to slowly and steadily build up their proficiency over time. So if you ran a total of 15 miles last week, don't run more than 16.5 miles this week.
2. Not Warming Up With Dynamic Movements
A proper warm-up is essential to staying injury free, Mosier says. Before your run, perform dynamic warm-up drills (ones that involve movement), not static stretches (ones that you hold in place).
A 2013 review published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports found that static stretches can reduce muscle strength by nearly 5.5 percent (or more when a stretch is held longer), cut muscle power by two percent and reduce power by nearly three percent.
"Dynamic warm-up movements can include front and side lunges, high knees and butt kicks while running in place and side shuffling," he says. "If you don't have time to warm up before your run, treat the first mile of your run as a warm-up to allow your body to ease into your workout."
3. Wearing Old, Unsupportive Shoes
Just like anything else you use frequently, your running shoes get worn down over time, meaning they're not as supportive as they were when you first bought them. "Running in old shoes can lead to unnecessary pain or even injury," says Jamie Walker, the CEO and co-founder of SweatGuru.
Walker says that running shoes have a 300- to 500-mile lifespan at the most. "If you start to feel a difference in your tread, it's probably time to replace the shoes," she says.
When you're buying new running shoes, be sure to get properly fitted at a local running or sporting goods store, Walker says. They can tell you if you're over- or under-pronating or need any other type of corrective cushioning. "Try them before you buy them. Take a jog around the store. Try different shoes to contrast and compare," she says.
4. Failing to Cross-Train
If you're a runner, you run, right? But that shouldn't be all you do day after day. You need to mix up your workout routine to ensure that you're not neglecting any muscles. An unbalanced regimen can lead to muscle imbalances, and thus, injury.
"Runners are incredibly strong in one direction but are often weak and immobile in lateral movements and dorsiflexion, leading to problems with ankle stability, plantar fasciitis, shin splints, Achilles problems and more," says Matt Ferguson, co-inventor and CEO of AFX (Ankle Foot maXimizer).
Ferguson suggests yoga, swimming, strength-training workouts and exercises that specifically focus on the typical muscle imbalances for runners, such as barefooted side lunges or front lunges using a stability platform.
5. Not Fueling Appropriately
Think of your body as a finely tuned machine. If you don't give it the proper fuel — or not fuel at all — your machine won't operate optimally. You either won't be able to run as fast, hit a wall halfway through or injure yourself.
"Eating a balanced diet will help ensure that you're able to meet your running and fitness goals," says Lora Mays, a Road Runners Club of America certified running coach.
A balanced, healthy diet will center around fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and healthy fats. And while you may be fine going on a shorter fasted run, if you're ramping up the miles, you'll want to eat a meal 2 to 3 hours before or a snack 30 minutes before.
"And don't wait long to eat afterward," Fitzgerald says. "During the first 45 minutes to an hour after a strenuous run, the muscles are in a unique biochemical state that allows for faster, more efficient nutrient absorption."
Lastly, remember to stay hydrated. "If you're going out for a long-distance run, consider carrying a hand bottle or hydration pack," Walker says.
Trainer Carl Ewald, race director for the ODDyssey Half Marathon, trained one runner who simply refused to stick to the training plan, instead running seven days a week and sometimes doubling the plan's mileage.
"Two years in a row he ended up injured and missed every race he trained for," he says. This year, however, he followed the plan and did amazingly well on his first half marathon, then went on to do great on the full marathon, Ewald says. "Overtraining is clearly one of the biggest things folks do to sabotage their training plans," he says.
Stick to your training plan — ideally one that doesn't increase weekly mileage by more than 10 percent — and listen to your body. If you notice signs of overtraining (decreased performance, excessive fatigue, agitation, moodiness, insomnia and loss of appetite, according to the American Council on Exercise), pull back and add a few more rest or active recovery days.
7. Being a One-Trick Pony
It's true what they say about the comfort zone — nothing grows there. The same goes for your running. If you run the same 3-mile loop day after day, you're not going to see progress. "While it's good to have a favorite route, don't get stuck on it," Walker says.
Eventually, your body will adapt to your usual routine and you'll plateau. "Many runners like to get in the comfortable aerobic zone and cruise, causing the body to get more efficient and burn less calories," says personal trainer Andrew Chaddick of The Houstonian Club.
"If you're running flats, change it up with a hill run," Walker says. "If you go for long, slow, steady runs, mix in a track workout." Or consider adding intervals to your usual route. "Interval training breaks you out of your rut, forcing your body to use more energy, improve technique and get faster," Chaddick says.
8. Tensing Your Upper Body
It may feel like contracting your shoulders and biceps as you pump your arms faster and faster will help you set a PR, but it's actually counterproductive. "Carrying tension in your shoulders and upper body wastes energy and slows runners down," Mosier says, urging runners to relax.
That's because, if you're expending energy keeping your upper-body muscles flexed, that's taking up energy that could be going to your legs, glutes and core.
"Drop your shoulders and keep your elbows bent at 90 degrees," Mosier says. As you run, occasionally perform a mental checklist of your upper body, he says. Make sure your jaw, shoulders and arms are relaxed, check the bend in your elbows and the way you're swinging your arms.
9. Running Only on Pavement
Pounding the pavement may be runner speak for going for a run, but all that pounding isn't doing your body any favors. "Concrete, like that in sidewalks, is the least forgiving surface," Mosier says.
Chaddick agrees, adding, "Running on pavement is often repetitive and jarring." That can make you prone to shin splints or aches and pains in your ankles, knees or hips.
"If you can run on blacktop, trails or any other softer surface, do it," Mosier says. And Chaddickadvocates for trail running, noting that it's easier on the joints and challenging to the muscles, while making the miles fly by through evolving scenery. "Running a trail is an adventure that combines the best of interval training, fartlek running, functional strength and dynamic obstacles."
10. Improper Foot Strike
Watch how your foot hits the pavement as you land. Often, if your heel hits first, it's a sign that your hips are behind your feet and your foot is flexed too far. "It's essentially like putting on the brakes every time you move forward," Mosier says. "And it takes more effort to get your hips over your feet so you can properly push off."
Mosier recommends running on a softer surface for short periods of time to find your natural stride but cautions runners to make sure they don't try to overcompensate by landing on their toes. According to a December 2019 review published in the journal Sports Medicine, neither heel strike nor toe strike have an advantage in preventing injury or running faster. You want to aim for a mid-foot strike.
11. Not Investing in Expertise
Runners are often willing to spend exorbitant amounts of money on the latest high-quality, high-tech equipment, Ferguson says, "but if you suggest they hire a running coach or go to a physical therapist to address biomechanical issues, the response is often that it's too expensive."
He compares it to a golfer who purchases the very best golf clubs available but spends nothing on lessons, then wonders why his game remains poor.
"If you want to run fast and stay healthy, wear last years' tech hoodie and invest in some proper training," he says. Ask around at your local running store for coach referrals or find one online through the Road Runners Club of America.
12. Setting Unrealistic Goals
"It's important to set realistic goals for yourself," Walker says. "Don't overdo it, listen to your body and be kind to yourself."
Mays agrees, saying people often set unrealistic goals when they first start running. "They go from couch potato to hoping they can run a marathon in three months." And just like with adding too many miles too quickly (see #1 on this list), that's a recipe for injury and overtraining.
Before setting a goal to complete a race or similar fitness event, start walking or running to see where you are, Mays says. "You can then set a goal based on your current fitness level." And again, make sure you're not increasing your mileage by more than 10 percent each week.
- Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports: Does pre‐exercise static stretching inhibit maximal muscular performance? A meta‐analytical review
- American Council on Exercise: 9 Signs of Overtraining to Look Out For
- Sports Medicine: What are the Benefits and Risks Associated with Changing Foot Strike Pattern During Running? A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of Injury, Running Economy, and Biomechanics