Prevent Running Injuries with These Top 5 Exercises

Running is notorious for its high injury rates… but even knowing how common injury is, nothing’s changing. So many athletes are still getting injured, year over year.

Runners continue to seek out the best methods for preventing injury, and they have the entire internet to scour for the solutions.

So why does it keep happening?

The problem is that most resources that tout “the best 5 ways to prevent running injury” only focus on alleviating symptoms or selling gear, rather than trying to tackle the root of the problem.

You’ve likely read most of these solutions before: changing your running shoes, adjusting your hydration or fueling schedules, trying to avoid overtraining, the works.

And while these can obviously be factors, they should be used as supplements to your injury prevention, not as the solution.

The true answer lies beneath the symptoms — in your biomechanics.

Long-term injury prevention requires an understanding of how your body moves while running, if there are any deficiencies that need to be addressed, and how to tackle those specific aspects.

So, without further ado, let’s dive in.

What are the Risk Factors for Running Injury?

If we’re being honest, that’s a loaded question.

There’s countless factors that can cause or contribute to a runner sustaining injury, many of which you’ve probably heard or read about before.

So, we’ll spare you the boring, nitty gritty details — here are the 5 most common reasons why runners end up getting injured:

  1. They take on too much, too soon.
  2. They present movement control deficiencies.
  3. They run with improper running form.
  4. They don’t have enough supplemental training (i.e., cross-training and strength training).
  5. They don’t warm up enough (or at all).

If these sound familiar to you, you’re not alone! Many athletes have a tendency to go too hard with their sports training, and it’s an especially common habit for runners. (It’s always tempting to run just a little faster or longer…)

And, because running is an innate ability, people don’t often realize just how nuanced of a skill it is. Many people who start running don’t anticipate how much deliberate training goes into the sport…

So, What Can You Do to Prevent Running Injury?

Part of running injury prevention is maintaining a high level of self-discipline. That includes a combination of diligent exercise and not going overboard with your training, either with your mileage or your pacing. 

And the other part is ensuring that you’ve nailed down your running foundation basics: proper form, sufficient supplemental training, and proactive drills for injury prevention.

But of course, it’s not as easy as throwing a handful of drills together and call it a day. The exercises you choose have to be running-specific in order to be truly beneficial for protecting your body from injury.

What You Need for Your Injury Prevention Plan

Farther down in the article, we’ll be diving into our top 5 injury prevention drills for runners, but they’re far from the only options! If you decide to put together your own plan, make sure you include these key elements to soundproof your progression.

Unilateral exercises. As you might be able to infer from the name, unilateral workouts target only one side of the body at a time. And by definition, running is a single-leg sport (at no point during the gait cycle are both your feet on the ground), so training one limb at a time is a logical start, right?

Regular unilateral practice is necessary to develop sufficient muscular control and alignment in a slower, more controlled environment. This allows you to dial into using the right muscles and retaining proper form, ultimately priming your neuromuscular pathways for the same movement patterns in your running.

Compound exercises. Also referred to as multi-joint exercises, compound workouts recruit — you guessed it — multiple joints at a time. This is an especially important aspect of running training because you’re constantly using multiple joints while you run, and being able to flex and extend each joint fluidly is a key component for proper muscle contraction.

If you’re thinking that these exercises are more challenging… you’d be right. But that’s kind of the point! Compound workouts will work your muscles harder and help you build strength more effectively and ultimately protect your passive tissues better.

Plyometric workouts. Sometimes referred to as “plyos” or “jump training,” plyometric workouts are a more advanced form of supplemental running training. (Before implementing them in your injury prevention plan, be sure you’ve established sufficient muscle activation and strength training so your body is prepared for the rigors of plyometrics.)

These workouts are focused on improving shock absorption and power generation, meaning they help injury prevention and performance at the same time! But, in the case of your injury prevention program, be sure you’re targeting the shock absorption first — this is, again, a key component for protecting your passive tissues from high impact forces.

Consistency and maintenance. While this isn’t a type of exercise, it’s absolutely ESSENTIAL for effective training. Deliberate exercises should be running-specific and practiced regularly to really hone your movement control skills. Make sure your injury prevention drills remain consistent to ensure that you maintain the benefits you’ve worked so hard for!

Additional Considerations for Injury Prevention

Of course, the exercises you choose aren’t the only important factor. Supplemental training habits are also necessary for thorough injury prevention practices:

That covers the basic building blocks of a solid injury prevention plan. (Do be sure, though, to cross-reference these foundational elements with a running coach or specialist to ensure that they suit your running goals and training schedule.)

But, if you’re looking for some more concrete examples to start, keep on reading!

How to Prevent Running Injury

As you read through these workouts, pay close attention to what muscles and movement patterns they target. You’ll find that this selection will check many (if not all) of the boxes for a good injury prevention plan.

And, as you get the hang of which exercises contribute to what aspect of injury prevention, you’ll have a better handle on how to further progress and select new workout variations that suit your training needs.

#1. Runner’s Lunges

Start by standing upright with your feet just slightly less than shoulder-width apart. Take a large step forward with one leg and bend the knee to 90 degrees, or until your thigh runs parallel to the ground. (Your other leg should naturally bend at the knee as you lunge forward.) Use your foot to push yourself back up to the starting position, then repeat the movement with your other leg.

You can practice runner’s lunges with or without added weight, as long as you start out light when you’re first learning the movement pattern. Many runners start with very light hand weights at first, then gradually progress to heavier weights.

This drill will target multiple major muscle groups: your quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and calves. But it does more than just act as a strength exercise for your legs — it also helps with practicing stability and leg alignment when landing your leading leg.

#2. Side Planks with Hip Abduction

Lie down on your side and use your forearm to support your body as you lift your hips off the ground, creating a straight line through your shoulder, hips, and ankles. Put your other arm on the outer hip, brace your core, and squeeze your glutes to lift your outer leg until it runs parallel to the ground. Lower your leg back down to the starting position and repeat.

Although this exercise will help address muscle activation in your abdomen and glutes, it predominantly targets lateral, functional control. It ultimately helps to improve hip and glute strength to increase the amount of control and stability your hips provide during dynamic single-leg activities.

#3. Lateral Band Walks

Wrap a band just above your knees and place your feet shoulder-width apart. Move into a half-squat, bending slightly at the knees — the resistance band should feel taut, and your glutes should feel activated in this position.

Holding that partial squat, take one step out to the side, bringing your other leg in each time. Take 8-10 steps in that same lateral direction, then repeat the same movement in the opposite direction. Focus on keeping your hips level and your spine neutral as you move.

Your goal with these band walks is to keep your glute muscle active for that same lateral hip control. The key is to make sure that you’re actively pushing against the resistance of the band, as this will build strength in the hip and increase your neuromuscular control for improved hip and knee alignment.

#4. Single-Leg Romanian Deadlifts

Stand on one leg, holding a kettlebell or weight in the opposite hand. Slightly bend the knee of your stance leg (making sure that it doesn’t move farther out than your toes) and bend forward at the hips. Brace your abdominal muscles and maintain a neutral spine as you bend; this will help prevent your pelvic bone from tilting forward.

Stick your other leg straight out behind you, flexing the glute muscles and keeping them nice and active. Make sure to keep the knee of your stance leg from caving inwards as you bend forward and back up to the starting position.

Because this motion targets the glutes, the added weight acts as resistance to help build strength in the muscles. Your focus with retaining proper leg alignment addresses single-leg stability in the hip, knee, and ankle.

#5. Heel-Raises

Start by standing with both feet flat on the floor, shoulder-width apart. Slowly raise your heels off the ground without bending your knees until you’re standing on your toes. (If needed, you can lightly rest your hands on a wall or chair to steady yourself — just be sure you’re not leaning directly on it!)

Hold this elevated position for several seconds, then slowly lower yourself back to the starting position, still keeping your knees straight throughout.

Although the exercise appears simple, it’s a surprisingly effective test of strength! This basic motion will target many important tissues within the lower leg and ankle, including the calf muscles, the Achilles tendon, and the plantar fascia along the bottom of your foot.

Injury Prevention Awaits

Now you know: the true secret to preventing running injury isn’t about your diet, equipment, or simply finding the right “quick fixes.”

It’s about the foundation of your running — your form, biomechanics, and physiology.

When you dive deep and target the highly specific aspects of your running, you’ll find the most success in both warding off injury AND masterful performance.

By Dr. Kelly Milliken

Dr. Milliken comes from a background of both biology and psychology, with a special interest in behavioral neuroscience. She spent two years working in a PT clinic and a neuroscience lab, finding a special interest in physical therapy and biomechanical analysis. With a combination of her technical knowledge of anatomy, biomechanics, and neuroscience, she’s able to implement a holistic approach to understanding the client as a whole person. In her free time, she enjoys exploring a variety of art forms, road biking, weight lifting, horseback riding, and is learning the ropes of mountain biking.

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