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Ready, Set, Run: Strategies for Running Injury Prevention

Group of people running

Running is a popular and effective form of exercise, but without proper precautions, it can lead to injuries, including strains, sprains and stress fractures. From choosing the right footwear to pain mitigation, the experts from the University of Florida Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation discuss strategies that runners of all skill sets can use to minimize pain and injury risk.

Selecting Your Glass Slipper: Finding the Perfect Running Shoe for You

Although there is no universal shoe that is best for all runners, doing a bit of research will help you easily identify the general characteristics of a great, safe running shoe.

“The purpose of a running shoe is to protect your foot from the environment, but not to do the work of the foot,” said Heather Vincent, PhD, vice chair of research and director of the UF Health Sports Performance Center in the department of physical medicine and rehabilitation.

group of people running at sunset

The shoe that feels the most comfortable may not be the best for running. Shoes, similar to other exercise equipment, are designed for specific types of activity. Shoes designed for standing hours at a time are going to have different characteristics than those designed for running.

“The top three reasons my patients have bought their running shoes is because they were either on sale, they liked the color or the store employee recommended them,” said Kevin Vincent, MD, PhD, chair of the UF Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and director of the UF Health Running Medicine Clinic.

As you look for running shoes, look for these characteristics:

  • Lightweight
  • Wide toe-box
  • Minimal heel-to-toe drop, or the difference in height between the heel and forefront in an athletic shoe
  • Moderate-to-low cushioning

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to finding the optimal running shoe, so your friend’s recommendation or the prettiest pair might not be the best option. Remember that every runner pronates, walks and runs differently.

In addition to finding the right running shoe, it is important to get used to them before you run in them. Transitioning from one pair of running shoes to another too quickly can lead to musculoskeletal pain and, eventually, an injury.

Running Injury Prevention: How to Stay in the Game the Longest

Protecting yourself from injury is a multistep task. It involves stretching, strength training and listening to your body.

UF Health physicians propose a dynamic warmup before running to successfully minimize the risk of injury. Movements in this sequence might involve exercises such as vertical jumps, hip swings, inchworm walkouts and simple forward and backward movement.

A flexible runner’s injury risk isn’t less than that of a less-flexible runner, so simply stretching to increase flexibility isn’t as helpful as dynamic exercises, which better prepare the body to run and are more beneficial in the long term.

To support the single-leg posture when running, successful runners make time for strength exercises. To build control, Dr. Heather Vincent recommends wall squats, front and side lunges, kettle bell squats and heavy, two-legged squats and deadlifts with barbells.

“Don’t be afraid to do heavy weights to get you stronger and give you power,” she said. “Get some weights in your program and, remember, it is never too late to introduce strength training.”

While it is important to build and reinforce hip muscles through floor exercises, the majority of strength training should be on your feet. This will benefit runners since they are in the air and must land with stability and balance. Foot and ankle injuries are common in runners.

Lastly, listen to your body. If you get tired during your run, it is OK to take a break and walk for a minute or two. Inhaling deeply and visualizing good running technique can help eliminate fatigue. Many new runners try to push past their endurance limit, but doing so causes a runner’s good form to break down. Consider periodic breaks during the run or try interval running, which is a patter of running fast, then slowing down or walking for some time. The most common running injuries are those that result from an athlete pushing through the pain. This can lead to overuse injuries such as runner's knee, shin splints and stress fracture.

“One of the things research shows is that runners have this idea that we should just run and the more you run, the better you're going to get,” Dr. Kevin Vincent said. “But this can overstress the body and lead to more fatigue and overuse injuries."

Top 4 Rules on How to Mitigate Exercise-Related Pain

Although running is not considered a contact sport, musculoskeletal pain and injury affect approximately 19% of novice runners and 79% of experienced runners.

Dr. Heather Vincent and Dr. Kevin Vincent reference four rules regarding pain that can be applied to any runner, regardless of age, experience or physique.

  1. Pain that worsens during a running session should not be dismissed, and it is recommended to pause the activity immediately to decrease the chance of further injury. The session should also be stopped if the pain changes from dull to intense, or achy to sharp.
  2. If joint pain persists or increases 24 hours after exercise, it can be an indication that the musculoskeletal system was not prepared for the running intensity of that session.
  3. Preexisting mild joint pain, defined as less than three points on a 10-point scale, should not increase during the exercise session or last into the following day.
  4. If there is pain that causes a limp or changes the way you walk, the exercise volume must be reduced or paused until a pattern of normalcy occurs in your walking. Continuing with this type of pain interferes with the normal healing of the tissue and may increase the risk for more injuries.

So, the next time your ankle starts to “feel weird,” take a step back and assess if you need another rest day. There is no need to feel guilty for wanting to prevent injuries.

“I've had runners come in with five, six or seven injuries because they kept working around the pain until they had to stop,” Dr. Kevin Vincent said. “I encourage my patients to reach out before it gets to this point.”

Hit the Ground Running

Getting into running, long or short distance, does not have to be daunting. Now that you know the safest way to get started, there is nothing stopping you from tying up your laces and putting one foot in front of the other.

Consult your doctor if you have any questions about staying safe and healthy while incorporating new exercise practices.

Learn more about the UF Health Running Medicine Clinic and the UF Health Sports Performance Center.

About the author

For the media

Media contact

Peyton Wesner
Communications Manager for UF Health External Communications (352) 273-9620