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10 Tips to prevent overuse injuries as a runner

Man is trying to prevent overuse injuries running.
Sabrina Burkart
Sabrina Burkart
Nov 22, 2023
Medically reviewed by
Maryke Louw
We know - runners need to run. But sometimes, our bodies struggle to keep up with all the miles we want to do. Here's how to prevent overuse injuries from derailing your training.

According to studies, over 14.9% of novice runners experience running-related overuse injuries. In contrast, the prevalence is 26.1% for recreational runners and 62.6% for competitive runners.

So, how can you avoid being part of the injured runner's club? Here are ten tips to help you stay injury-free.

How runners can avoid overuse injuries

Runners can develop overuse injuries in any area of their lower body. Some of the most common include:

Although avoiding all injuries is impossible, there are a few screws you can turn to give your body the best environment to keep running and reduce your chances of getting an overuse injury.

Top 10 elements for preventing overuse injuries when running

1
Strength training
Makes your body more robust and improves your movement patterns
2
Stretching
Maintains joint mobility and helps you relax after a run
3
Warm-ups
Preps your body for the quick, forceful movements in running
4
Training load
Gradual changes ensure your body has enough time to adapt to new loads
5
Recovery days
Allow your body to repair and strengthen
6
Sleep
Affects all areas of health, including your body's ability to restore itself after exercise
7
Diet
Provides the building blocks your body needs to rebuild and recover after a run
8
Running shoes
Helps you move better and reduce impact
9
Running style
Can be adjusted to distribute the running forces more evenly
10
A fluid plan
Allows you to better manage training loads

1. Strength training

The rumor that "runners don't need strength training" persists. But it's just not true.

Trained leg and upper body muscles provide strength and stability during runs. At the same time, it strengthens your tendons, ligaments, and bones to help prevent overuse injuries.

In addition to injury prevention, studies have shown strength training can also improve running form.

Female runner doing strength exercises to prevent running overuse injures.

Strength training will also help you continuously improve your running performance because movement sequences can be completed more efficiently or better with more muscle strength.

Our advice is: Add regular strength training sessions into your training week. The intensity and frequency of your strength training sessions should change depending on your running schedule. You can learn more about this in the Running Injury Prevention plan in the Exakt Health app.

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Man using the Exakt Health app to prevent overuse injuries running

2. Stretching

Stretching is a very controversial topic within the literature. It can be divided into static stretching (where you hold the position) and dynamic stretching where you move in and out of positions of stretch.

Stretching pre-running

Against widespread belief, studies have shown that static stretching before running does not reduce a runner's risk of overuse injury.  An important factor in stretching is the duration of the holds. Static stretches held for longer than 60 seconds may also reduce your performance.

So if you want to include static stretching as a part of your warm-up routine, you should hold them for shorter periods (e.g., 30 seconds).

In contrast, although running-specific research is still lacking, dynamic stretching has been shown to improve sports performance and help prevent injuries across a wide variety of running sports.

Stretching after running

Studies have shown that static stretching after running does not positively affect a runner's recovery and doesn’t reduce the intensity of muscle soreness after a hard workout or race.

However, it is essential to note that static stretching after a run does not harm you either. On the contrary, it can help improve joint mobility and allow the runner to relax. And as psychological factors are crucial in injury prevention, nothing speaks against static stretching on your rest days if you enjoy it.

Our advice is:

  • Use dynamic stretches as part of your warm-up; Do 6-8 exercises to move your joints through their full range of motion, e.g., a dynamic lunge with upper body movements.
  • If you do static stretches before your run, use shorter holds, e.g., 30 seconds, and follow them up with dynamic stretches.
  • Do static stretches after your run or on your rest days if you feel they benefit you.

Find examples of calf stretches for runners here.

Do static stretches after your run or on your rest days if you feel they benefit you to prevent overuse injuries.

3. Warm-ups

It is vital to warm up before running. While warming up, you are waking up your nervous system and getting your muscles ready for the quick reactions that running requires from your body. In terms of preventing injuries, a good warm-up is mainly essential to prevent acute injuries.

Our advice is:

  • Warm up to the point where your body temperature rises slightly, and you begin to sweat.
  • Include dynamic stretching exercises in the warm-up.
  • Your warm-up intensity should match your training session's; e.g., a warm-up before a sprint session should include explosive movements or accelerations.
  • The warm-up should last 10-15 minutes until you feel ready to perform.
A proper warm-up before running is important to prevent acute injuries but don't affect overuse injuries.

4. Change training gradually

Your body adapts to training slowly. So while cardiovascular fitness (heart and lungs) can improve quickly, it takes your muscles, tendons, ligaments, and joints a while to catch up and grow stronger.

If you increase your mileage too quickly, your body doesn't get enough time to adapt, which may lead to overuse injuries.

Research shows, to avoid injury, your weekly mileage should increase by no more than 10% when your longest run is 5 miles or more.

However, you can grow your mileage more quickly if your longest run is less than 5 miles and your body is coping well.

Our advice is:

  • Keep track of your weekly running miles to ensure you don’t increase it too quickly.
  • Listen to your body and build your mileage more slowly if you feel tired or fatigued.
Female runner tracking her training to prevent overuse injuries.

5. Rest days

Full days off running and strength training are essential to your training success. Let us explain why.

When we exercise, we sustain microdamage in all parts of our body (muscles, tendons, bones, ligaments, etc.). If given enough recovery time, our bodies repair this microdamage and make us stronger and more robust. Rest is vital for recovery. Full recovery can often take 8 to 72 hours or longer.

If you do another hard training session before your body has fully recovered, you risk developing an overuse injury.

Your required recovery time will depend on the following:

  1. Terrain: Hill running works the body much harder than running on the flat.
  2. Workout intensity: If a training session is more intense, the effect on the body will be more significant, and you'll need more recovery time.
  3. Your fitness: When you're new to running or strength training (or you've had a long break from exercise), the training effects will be more significant, and your body will recover slower.
  4. Other activities: You may need more recovery when you do other activities (like strength training or walking long distances for your job) that work the same body part (e.g., your legs). These activities add to how much your body needs to repair.

Our advice is: Respect your recovery days; They are just as important as your training days.

Man relaxing on his couch during his rest day to help him avoid overuse injuries from running.

6. Sleep

When it comes to sleep, both the quality and volume matter. Recent research shows that sleeping for 7 hours or fewer per night increases your risk of developing musculoskeletal pain or getting a sports injury. Poor sleep lasting for 14 days or longer increases your injury risk by 1.7 times.

Our advice is:

  • Take steps to help you fall asleep and stay asleep, e.g., go to bed at the same time, don't use a phone or laptop before you go to bed, and ensure your room is dark.
  • If you can’t sleep more in one go, napping during the day has also been shown to improve sports performance.
Both the quality and volume of sleep are important factors for preventing overuse injuries.

7. Diet

Not eating enough calories or the right combination of nutrients can increase your risk of getting overuse injuries and reduce your running performance. Your body can only repair and strengthen itself if you provide the building blocks it needs.

Our advice is: Speaking to a professional like a dietitian or sports nutritionist is always the best choice to get a good overview of how to support your body in the best way for your specific training schedule.

Improve your diet to prevent overuse injuries.

8. Running shoes

With running shoes, finding the right shoes for you and your foot type is very important. There are many different ways in which a shoe can support your foot - it's all about finding the right one for you and your body.

The good news is that you likely don’t have to consult an expert to find the best shoe. Research has shown that simply selecting a shoe that feels comfortable when running automatically reduces your injury risk.

Generally, running shoes should be replaced between 300-500 miles, as they lose their cushioning and stability after this mileage. If you also use your shoes for walking and other activities, you may have to replace them sooner.

Our advice is: Choose shoes that feel comfortable when you run and replace them regularly.

Choose shoes that feel comfortable when you run and replace them regularly.

9. Running style

When it comes to different running styles, studies have identified two factors that can help to avoid overuse injuries:

  • Reducing overstride - Overstriding is when a runner lands with their foot far out in front of their body, causing a breaking force that increases the strain on the body).
  • Increasing your cadence (the total number of steps you take per minute) to around 170 steps per minute - By giving more steps, you reduce the time you spend in contact with the ground, which reduces the force on your body.

In general, including strength training in your workout routine will also improve your running economy and give you a better and more ergonomic running style.

Our advice is:

  • Assess your running style and adjust it only if needed.
  • Include regular strength training sessions in your training schedule.

Find more tips on assessing and adjusting running form for injury prevention here.

Assess your running style and adjust it only if needed to prevent overuse running injuries.

10. Have a plan but also listen to your body

Having a training plan is essential to progress (not doing too little) and help avoid overuse injuries (not doing too much). But still, it is also necessary to listen to your body and take breaks when your body tells you to do so. Sticking to your plan when your body tells you to take a break usually causes trouble.

Your body tells you in time when something is not working correctly; This doesn’t only mean pain during running. If you feel unwell, tired, or physically weak, you should give your body a break no matter what your training plan for that day says. Running when you’re unwell or fatigued would, in any case, be counterproductive and can also harm your heart.

Our advice is:

  • Have a realistic training plan.
  • Adapt your plan when your body tells you it needs more recovery or just isn’t feeling well.
  • Adaptations could include resting completely, cross-training, doing a restorative yoga session, etc.
If you want to prevent overuse injuries, listen to your body and take breaks if needed.

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Conclusion

These 10 tips can help you build the best environment to avoid overuse injuries. But even the best plan can’t guarantee 100% success. If you do get injured, we’ve got your back! Use the Exakt Health app to get back to running asap.

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Sabrina Burkart
Sabrina Burkart
Sabrina studied sports science at the University of Vienna and physiotherapy at the FH Campus Wien. She gained practical experience as a physiotherapist with the Austrian youth women's national handball team, among others.
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