Running is an amazing way to stay fit and keep your heart healthy. In fact, doing it for just five minutes every day can help you live longer. But it’s also a really good way to get hurt if you’re doing it wrong. Whether you’ve just bought you first pair of running sneakers or are training for your first marathon, look out for these signals that something’s off—and fix them to make running more enjoyable and beneficial for your health.
1. You’re in pain. Especially if you’re new to running, a little soreness is standard, and doesn’t mean you’re hurt. But if it lasts for a few days, it could be a sign of injury, notes Michele Favale, run ambassador for Lolë. “Pain in the arches of your feet, shin splints, knee pain, tight hamstrings and hips are all common running related problems,” she says. If you can’t recall a moment you were clearly injured, it could be one of two things: you need new shoes, or you’re overtraining.
“As a general rule, it’s been said that a pair of sneakers should never see a birthday,” Favale says. The actual time frame will depend on how often you run, but you should replace your sneakers about every 400 miles. Over time, the cushioning and soles wear down, leaving you less support. She recommends going to a running store for a gait analysis (you run on a treadmill and a sales associate diagnoses your specific needs). Some runners have issues due to over- or under-pronating (pronation is the way your ankles roll in as you hit the ground to distribute impact), which can be corrected with the right sneaks.
Overtraining happens to beginners and seasoned runners alike. This usually means you’re adding too much mileage or intensity too fast, without enough rest, says Marnie Kunz, running coach at the Lolë running club and RunStreet. Rethink your training strategy, and even consider consulting a running coach to help reset realistic goals.
2. Your muscles are tight. This can be the result of skipping a proper warm-up and cool-down, which is also important to prevent injury. “Dynamic stretching is a great way to get your heart rate up and your muscles stretched before a run,” says Kunz. An easy one: stand, bend your knee and hug it toward your chest, and then release and repeat with the opposite leg. Begin running slowly for a few minutes to continue to warm up your legs. To cool down, jog at a slower pace to help your body prepare itself to stop, and then do static stretches—holding for 10 seconds—like lunges.
3. You spend most of your run flipping through iTunes. A great soundtrack can power you through a run. A lame one, or one you’ve already listened to a hundred times, can slow you down. If you find yourself getting bored with your current playlist, it’s time to change it up. Create a few different ones and rotate every week or two, depending on how often you run, or download a music-streaming app like Fit Radio, which allows you to choose from different stations playing high-energy songs and mixes grouped by similar beats per minute (BPM) to stay in line with your pacing.
4. You’re relying on other runners’ advice. Seasoned runners love to give advice and amp up newbies about running. And although this is generally helpful, it comes with some risks, Favale notes. “Beginners listen to many different opinions and ideas and tend not to think about what works best for them,” she says. Whether advice on the best sneakers, sports bra, or pre-workout snack, it’s great to have suggestions, but ultimately you need to find what’s best for you. Experienced runners have learned what works for them—now it’s your turn. Always listen to your body and feel things out until you discover how you perform best.
5. You burn out really quickly. “Finding your pace is crucial to having successful runs and starting out too quickly is one way to burnout,” Favale says. That’s because the amped-up pace can make it hard for your body to respond to the work it is about to do, making you fatigued faster and your run shorter. To find your ideal pace, start out with a moderate “talking” pace, meaning you can hold a conversation as you go. If you’re looking for an easy run, keep this pace, but if you want to push yourself, increase your pace gradually, so that conversation becomes a little shorter and harder. Your max pace is when you can no longer converse, but are still able to take full, deep breaths.
6. You’re cramping up. “Running cramps can be caused by shallow breathing, dehydration, a lack of electrolytes in your body, or something you ate or drank before running,” notes Kunz. If you get them in your legs, it’s probably because you’re dehydrated; if they’re in your side, you’re breathing wrong; if your stomach is cramped, it’s because of something you ate, explains Favale.
- Focus on staying hydrated throughout the day rather than loading up right before your run. If your legs start to cramp, stop, stretch and drink water. Invest in a wearable water bottle, like one of these Nathan hydration belts, if you know you won’t have access to H2O along the way.
- What you eat before a run matters. Have a light snack one to two hours before, so you have time to digest but not use up all the fuel. Stay away from foods high in fat, fiber and protein—they slow down digestion and are more likely to cause cramping. (Get some awesome ideas for pre- and post-workout snacks here.)
- Focus on breathing. “Often beginner runners tend to take shallow breaths from their chest, instead of deeper breathes in the lower lungs,” notes Favale. Your stomache should expand each time you take a deep breath. If you feel a cramp coming on, concentrate on taking slower breaths. Inhale for a count of three, pause, and then exhale for a count of three.
7. You lose motivation quickly. Sometimes it’s hard to drag yourself off the sofa and hit the ground running (excuse the pun). Joining a local running club is a great way to not only get started running, but to stay motivated and find encouragement from fellow runners. If you’re an experienced runner, it can give you a fulfilling opportunity to help others grow and learn to love your sport. It can also help you set realistic goals to avoid overtraining (see No. 1).
8. You’re too tired to lace up. As tough as it might be to become a morning person, the best time to run is actually bright and early, before you head to the office. A 2012 study found that working out in the morning could actually help you get a better night’s sleep, and getting quality sleep is important to fuel your body for a workout. Plus, an April 2014 study found that people who had the majority of their daily sunlight exposure in the morning had significantly lower BMIs than those who got sunshine later on in the day, so you’ll get more bang for your buck.