One of the first goals new runners often make is to run a mile without stopping. There's something about the distance that cements your status as a runner (though, if you run any distance, you are a runner). And for more experienced runners, mile time is often used as a marker of fitness.
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So if you can't run a mile without stopping, your body may be trying to tell you something is going on. But it doesn't always mean you're doing something wrong.
"If you can't run a mile without stopping, it's totally okay," says Marc Pelerin, a running coach who provides online training plans and gait analyses for distance runners at TrainWithMarc.com. "Build your endurance with shorter segments followed by rest and gradually, as you get fitter, you can cut the rests and then increase the pace."
If you don't have a running coach or specialist at the ready, we talked to two top coaches to find out some of the most common reasons you might not be able to run a mile — and what exactly your body is trying to tell you.
"If you’re in pain when running, seek out help — either a specialist or a running coach — to help guide you through your rough patch," Pelerin says.
If You: Have to Take Frequent Breaks
You Might: Need to Build Up Endurance
Again, if you can't run a mile without breaks, it's alright! But if you're determined to cover the distance without stopping, start by alternating walking and running intervals.
"Break up the run into more manageable segments that you can do without overly taxing your body," Pelerin says. "Maybe it's half-mile segments or maybe it's 100 meters. Whatever you can handle is what you should do."
Regardless of where you start, though, you can progress as you get stronger, running longer and walking less. "While you might have started at 100-meter intervals, after time, you'll be able to run longer with fewer and fewer breaks until you don't need the breaks anymore," Pelerin says.
If You: Have Hip Pain While Running
You Might: Need Your Stride Evaluated
The hip is complex and, as Danny Mackey, head coach of the Brooks Beasts Track Club explains, there are three potential causes of hip pain while running: biomechanics, joint position and muscular imbalance.
"A specialist can help you target the muscles to strengthen versus just guessing and maybe not improving the proper areas," Mackey says. "It also helps to have them look at your stride [a gait analysis] in real time. Some stretching and opening up the hip or knee joint might be the best route to go."
A gait analysis can help identify things such as foot strike and position as each foot hits the ground when you run, as well as running stance, which can help identify any adjustments that should be made to running form to help reduce load on joints.
If You: Have Knee Pain While Running
You Might: Need to Replace Your Shoes
Knee pain can quickly lead to aches and pains in other areas of the body — especially if the pain causes you to change your stride — Mackey says. One easy fix is making sure your shoes are in good shape and have enough cushioning left in them.
Generally, you should replace your running shoes once they have 300 to 500 miles on them. You should also check the bottom of the shoe for any signs of wear and tear that may affect performance. If you can't see the design of the tread in any area, it's time for new shoes.
Next, evaluate the strength and flexibility of the muscles around your knee. "Looking at quad and hamstring flexibility is a good area to start, and then look at strengthening the glutes," Mackey says.
To stretch your quads, do the standing quad stretch: Bend one leg, bringing your foot up toward your butt, and grab your leg at the ankle or shin, pulling it toward your butt. Then, to build strength, do walking lunges (with weights to add resistance): Step one foot forward and bend both knees to 90 degrees before coming back up to standing and repeating on the other leg.
If the pain continues, Mackey once again recommends seeing a specialist to pinpoint the portion of the knee that has pain (and make sure the knee itself is actually the cause).
If You: Have Ankle Pain or Stiffness
You Might: Need Better-Fitting Shoes
When it comes to ankle pain or stiffness, Pelerin says the best place to start is with your shoes. But instead of picking a shoe solely based on looks — which is tempting — get fitted for a shoe that works with your gait and stride.
"Go to a specialty running store and they'll watch you in motion," Pelerin says. "Every brand makes a shoe that fits your needs, you just need to try on a few pairs to find what works for you."
If You: Get Calf Cramps While Running
You Might: Need to Start Foam Rolling After You Run
A foam roller can be a runner's best friend. And while they may look intimidating, they're fairly simple to use. Plus, not only will foam rolling help you recover from cramping, Mackey says they can actually help prevent further injury, as well.
"Spending time on the foam roller can provide yourself feedback on areas of tightness or soreness, which can be used as a sign to help relieve them before they become a bigger issue," he says.
While sitting on the ground, place the roller under your calf and apply steady pressure — it should never be too painful — as you move the foam roller back and forth up the length of your calf. Pause for 30 to 60 seconds on any areas that are specifically tight, before moving along the calf.
If You: Get Stomach Cramps
You Might: Need to Change Your Pre-Run Meal
Often, stomach pains or cramps when running can simply be explained by what you ate — or didn't eat — before a run. If you notice stomach cramping and eat the same thing before every run, switch up your pre-workout meal to see if that helps.
"It could be that you are eating too much, too close to when you start your run or maybe even that you aren't eating enough to fuel your workouts," Pelerin says.
Everyone is different, but it's generally good to wait at least 30 minutes after eating before exercising (longer if you had a large meal). Focus on foods that digest easily like protein and fast-digesting carbs, such as bananas and protein bars.
Your pre-run nutrition also includes your water intake. "Sipping on water throughout the day should eliminate dehydration," Pelerin says.
To figure out the minimum amount of water you should drink per day, take your body weight in pounds and divide it by two. But if you're regularly exercising multiple days a week, this number will need to be adjusted to account for water lost through sweat.
If You: Get Shin Pain While Running
You Might: Need to Back Off From Training
"Shin pain, if not treated, can turn into a stress fracture or worse, so when in doubt, back off of training," Pelerin says. "Stop and consider some of your options, like cross-training, rehabbing the pain or, if it persists, see a specialist."
And Pelerin suggests making sure you're always warmed up for every run with this simple routine:
Move 1: Calf Raise
- Stand on the balls of your feet at the edge of a step or other raised platform.
- Lower your heels a few inches toward the floor.
- Press through the balls of your feet and raise up as high as possible.
- Pause here for a second.
- Fully lower your heels toward the floor so your calves are in a stretch.
- Pause here for a moment before repeating.
Move 2: Ankle Circle
- Sit with your back straight and extend your right leg.
- Circle your ankle around in a clockwise motion.
- Repeat in the counter-clockwise direction.
- Switch sides.
Move 3: Write the Alphabet
- Sit with your back straight and extend your right leg.
- Pretend your foot is a paintbrush and you're going to paint the alphabet with your toes. Start with the letter A and move all the way through the alphabet.
- Repeat with your other foot.
Move 4: Seated Calf Stretch With Resistance Band
- Begin seated with your right knee bent, foot on the floor and left leg extended straight. Loop a resistance band around the ball of your left foot.
- Holding the other end of the band in your hands, press your left toes away from you as if you're pumping a gas pedal.
- Pause for a few moments.
- Then bring the toes back to face the ceiling.
- Make sure to do the same number of reps on each side.
After your run, Pelerin suggests grabbing a foam roller for recovery. As with any pain, if it appears to be chronic, seeing a specialist or coach is the best course of action, especially to make sure your running form or shoes isn't the cause.