7 common causes of running injuries – and how to avoid them

Posted on 30 August 2017

Running is a popular sport, all across South Africa. But it can be an extremely painful sport, too.

110 Parkruns take place every Saturday, with an average of 288 runners per event, from bustling Green Point, Cape Town, to White River in Nelspruit. Seduced by the ease and accessibility of the activity, too many new runners sprint headlong into an inconvenient statistic: up to 70% of recreational runners suffer from variety of overuse injury each year, according to a 2009 journal in Sport Health.

In fact, a few subsequent studies suggest runner’s injury rate might be even higher – as the New York Times reported last year, some research estimates that as many as 90% of recreational runners are laid low by injury every year.

But how do these injuries occur? And is there anything new runners can do to avoid them? Let’s take a closer look.

What are the most common causes of running-related injuries?

“I have treated many new runners for injuries,” says Gerrie Berner, a biokineticist at Mediclinic Cape Town. “Running is a weight bearing, high impact and repetitive type of exercise. It puts a lot of strain on the joints and muscles of the body, and this will make you more susceptible to injuries. Yet most runners will just start running without a proper running programme or guidance.”

In their discussion of The Big 7 Body Breakdowns, Runner’s World identified the most prevalent risk areas of running: the knee, Achilles, hamstring, ankles, heels, shins and iliotibial band, a strip of muscle that runs along the outside of your thigh from the hip to the knee.

Berner identifies 7 primary causes of running-related injuries:

  1. A rapid increase in weekly running distance
  2. Wearing inadequate or worn-out shoes
  3. Muscle imbalances
  4. Returning to previous running distances too fast after a layoff
  5. Abrupt changes in running surface
  6. Not taking enough recovery days after strenuous training sessions
  7. Not warming up and stretching properly before going for a run

Many of these risk factors are a symptom of enthusiasm, as new runners get ahead of themselves. “Too many new runners fall into the trap of doing too much too soon,” agrees Chris Lippstreu from Race Fit, a Cape Town-based gym that specialises in building stronger endurance athletes. “Even jumping from a 5k to 10k can result in damage to the body. Running is just like strength training; you need to ease the body into it so that it can adapt accordingly.”

How can new runners avoid injuries?

If you’re one of the 90%, irritating injuries will follow you long after you cross the finish line. But the fact that they are so prevalent does not mean they are inevitable. Lippstreu’s advice to new runners: take it easy. Giving your body time to adjust to your new sport will pay off in the long run. “Pick a running pace you are comfortable with, and run shorter distances. Don’t be persuaded to try marathon distances when you haven’t been running for at least a few years.”

Then, rectify imbalances by getting stronger – all over. “Whether it’s yoga, strength training or cycling,” advises Lippstreu, “incorporating other forms of exercise to train other muscles or energy systems will not only improve your running performance but also develop other aspects of your overall health and conditioning.”

Pounding miles of tar at a time isn’t a comfortable experience, especially if your body isn’t accustomed to it. A 2016 study from Harvard Medical School pinpointed a key cause of injuries among those new to running: landing on the heel, which is associated with a far higher rate of injury risk than landing on the middle or front of the foot.

To avoid this impact, take to the trail. Embrace a variety of surfaces to change up the way you land – skipping over rocks and roots will help you land on different parts of your feet. “Go cross-country to give your body a break from the monotonous impact of hitting the road,” says Lippstreu. “This will give you a feel for other forms of running events.”

Do you need new shoes – or a running coach?

They’re the final barrier between your body and the road, so your shoes play a major role in keeping you free from injuries. In a 2001 study, researched at the University of Pretoria noted that because shoes, inserts and orthotics affect general muscle activity, they can have a major effect on fatigue, comfort, work and performance.

Check your shoes regularly for signs of wear and tear that could put you at risk. Look for damage to the outer sole, and a softening of the heel.  The mid-sole is particularly important, as any degradation will affect its ability to protect your arch. A great way to test your shoe’s effectiveness is to grab it by the heel and front, and twist in opposite directions: a high resistance to distortion will keep you safe from injury.

But the best thing you can do for your running health and performance, says Berner, is seek out some expert advice.

“Get a proper foot assessment and shoe fitting,” says Berner. “When you wear the wrong type of shoes, your risk for injury will be very high. Make sure you start slowly and increase your running distance gradually. Don’t follow just any running programme; make sure it is designed according to your needs. If you are not sure about how to do this, then get a running coach.”

A final word of advice

The secret to avoiding common running injuries? Listen to your body, says Berner. “If you feel any pain or discomfort, take a rest day. If the pain persists, see a professional. And never, ever run through pain.”


Published in Cape Town Marathon

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.

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