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8 Common Running Mistakes to Avoid

Running is a simple sport. You don’t need a ton of equipment or expertise to do it, and running is a great way to improve your health, spend time outdoors and connect with other runners. As COVID-19 has limited access to team sports and indoor exercise, more people are trying running for the first time, or returning to the sport after a long hiatus. If you’re making a fresh start, here are some common mistakes to avoid.

1. Trying to progress too quickly

Is there a goal you’re working toward? If so, be patient and strategic in your approach. RRCA-certified running coach and Black Girls Run! Ambassador Toni Billups recommends using the tried-and-true SMART goals method. “Make sure your goal is specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-oriented with a target in mind.”

Let’s say you’re a new runner and you want to run a half marathon this year. Instead of jumping right into 10-mile runs (and potentially burning out), start with a manageable short term goal based on your current fitness. This could mean completing one mile without stopping or perhaps completing a 5K (that’s 3.1 miles) by alternating between running and walking.

You could even register for a training program designed to prepare you for a specific 5K race. A measurable goal with a deadline and support to help you get there goes a long way. After you complete the first goal, you can progress to a bigger challenge. Zoilabella Callo of Glendale, AZ, took her fitness one step at a time. After a debilitating back injury, she began by walking a mile, then gradually covering more and more ground (through a combination of walking and running) until she completed her first half marathon. “I started slowly running little by little,” she says. “And I loved it.”

SMART goals can keep you on track and motivated. It’s also OK to adjust your goals as needed. While it’s disappointing to miss a goal or have a setback, it doesn’t mean you have to give up. Billups recommends giving yourself space to re-evaluate and make adjustments as you pursue your goal. “Whatever you do, don’t be hard on yourself.” says Billups. “Running should be fun!”

A woman runs alone on a road

2. Pursuing goals you don’t actually care about

Beyond the idea of whether your goal is specific and measurable, it’s important to answer a few simple questions: Do you want to do it? Does your goal excite you? Or does it just seem like something that you “should” do? Find a goal you can get fired up about.

Running coach and writer, Phil Latter, of Brevard, NC, says, “If you scale expectations to what you're willing to put in, you're going to be much happier with what you get out of this. Look yourself in the mirror and figure out your whys for running.”

That’s because your motivation is one of the most important factors when it comes to your likelihood of achieving a goal. If you are genuinely excited to run your first 5K, and if you love the way running makes you feel, you’re much more likely to get your run in, even if it’s cold and dark outside. But if you’re not all in, it becomes easier to make excuses and give up.

3. Running in the wrong shoes or shoes that are too worn out.

The right shoes can mean the difference between a long-term running habit, or giving up because it’s too uncomfortable. Your running shoes absorb the impact of each step and provide the traction you need to stay upright. But they don’t last forever.

Most running shoes last 300 to 500 miles. When you start to see the rubber wear out on the bottom, or if you feel beat up after every run (many runners feel this in their knees and feet), it’s likely a sign that you need new shoes. Luis Carducci, 30, of Miami, FL, started running a few years ago. But mostly on and off, as he consistently ended up with foot, knee and back pain. He often complained that his toes felt cramped, or that his arch ached. (Check out Carducci’s video with Ashley Arnold about how to know if your shoes are worn out). Finally, he found a pair of shoes that actually fit his foot and worked with his stride. “I had sharp pains in my arches when I ran,” Carducci says. “Once I got new shoes, I felt a huge amount of support that I didn’t have before.”

4. Ignoring pain

As a runner, you learn to get comfortable with discomfort, which helps you to run longer and get faster. But there’s a big difference between pushing through fatigue and ignoring your body’s warning signals of true pain on the run. It’s tough to tell the difference at first, but over time you learn how your body feels when you need new shoes, need to do more strength work or need to take an extra rest day to recover.

In a Zoom call with Fleet Feet, professional steeplechase runner, Emma Coburn, says, “there’s a difference between aches and pains and true injury. Honestly, that’s a struggle every athlete has and I think it’s so individual. I know the trends in my body. So, if I have a sore knee for a day I’m not going to freak out because I know that means my quads are tight. I know my body well enough to say, well, that pain, that’s different and in a scary spot. You can problem solve by tracking your own patterns and trends, but also, don’t be afraid to go ask for help. Go see a PT or massage therapist who is an expert on the human body.”

Physical Therapist Miriam Salloum (also known as the Runner’s Mechanic), of Asheville, NC, recommendstaking action right away if you start to feel consistent pain on the run. The sooner you address the issue, the better your chance to fix it without experiencing a full-blown injury.

Reduce your distance and intensity for a few days rather than be forced onto the sidelines for several weeks or months. Read Salloum’s recommendations here on what to do when you feel an injury coming on.

5. Not getting adequate rest

Rest and time off can be a scary concept to some runners. Running makes you feel good, so why would you want to stop doing it?

While running benefits your health in many ways, it’s also a repetitive motion that impacts your body with every step. Your bones, tissues and muscular systems need adequate sleep every night to repair and adapt to your training. The same systems also benefit from occasional days off from running.

In an interview with Fleet Feet, endurance running coach, Maxx Antush of Bellingham, WA, recommends scheduling regular recovery weeks in which athletes continue to run, but decrease their mileage and intensity.

“By allowing your body to adequately recover and adapt from hard training, you are able to apply more stress and ultimately stimulate more improvements down the road,” Antush says. “Taking scheduled recovery weeks has the potential to avoid musculoskeletal injuries before they ever occur and allows your body the chance to absorb the training that you have been doing.”

There are many ways to approach recovery, and the “best” option depends on the individual, their training and their experience level. Some runners like to take at least one day off per week. Others will take weeks to a month off after a long training cycle. No matter what you choose, be mindful of the way your body feels. If you feel constantly tired, it may be time to take a break.

6. Skipping warmups and strength training

Running takes time and energy, and you have a limited amount of both. It’s fun to watch those miles add up in your training log, and it’s tempting to just run and forgo warming up or working on strength and mobility. But just like your body needs rest from running, it also needs intentional strength work and movements that improve your mobility on the run.

Back to the repetitive nature of running: It causes stress to the body. It’s healthy stress, of course, that your body can adapt to in a positive way. But in order to bounce back stronger, you need to strengthen weak areas and keep joints mobile to help prevent overuse injuries.

Strength training and dynamic warm ups help your body to practice efficient movements as you strengthen and mobilize areas that are vulnerable to overuse injuries.

In the book Running Rewired, author Jay Dicharry writes, “To run better we have to realize that running is a skill. And skilled running stems from practicing skilled movement. Virtually every runner I’ve ever met would be better served dropping one run a week and adding some skill work.”

Still worried about time? Even if you just take five to 10 minutes to prime your muscles before you start running, you will likely start to see and feel improvements. Learn more here about why runners should do activation exercises.

7. Overtraining or always running fast

Running too fast is a common pitfall for new runners. Running, especially with a GPS watch, can provide a lot of data. While it’s fun to see yourself improve, don’t go overboard.

“There's something to be said for not becoming addicted to metrics early on,” says Latter. “When we fixate on the numbers we open ourselves up to a negative feedback loop. Because not every day is going to be trending upwards, and if you're not properly prepared for those little backslides we all have on the way to greater fitness, it could be a rather demoralizing experience.”

Your best training requires a balance of different efforts, each with their own purpose. While you need speedwork to help you get faster, you also need easy days and rest days to help you recover. Long runs can increase your endurance, but only if you recover afterward. Strength and mobility work support the whole process, along with proper hydration, nutrition and sleep. Sometimes, Latter says, the purpose is simply to enjoy your run and forget about metrics.

To ensure that you’re on the right track, Billups says, “it’s always a good idea to find a way to track your progress. Celebrating every short-term goal along the way can be very motivating.”

This also makes it easier to gain perspective on your progress. In the midst of training and life, it can be easy to forget how much you have run in the past month. If you feel ready to crash, sometimes it helps to look back at your training log and have that moment of recognition that your miles have been increasing and it’s time to take a rest day. Even if it isn’t on your schedule.

8. Ignoring holistic nutrition

In an interview with Fleet Feet, professional distance runner, Magda Boulet of Oakland, CA, says that nutrition is the foundation of peak athletic performance. It can provide the nutrients needed to sustain energy for running and recovery throughout each day. What you put in your body matters.

Learning to eat your way to your best health and performance is a balancing act. Yes, food is fuel. But it’s also more than that. In an interview with Fleet Feet about her new cookbook, The Runner’s Kitchen, Coburn says that meals help her bond with family and teammates. “That’s rooted in having really delicious food,” she says. “You look forward to sitting down together. It’s a big part of what keeps me fueled emotionally as an athlete.”

It’s no secret that eating disorders are rampant in runners. According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), athletes in sports that emphasize size and weight, such as running, are more likely to develop eating disorders.

If you’re running in order to make your body look like someone else’s, or to impress other people, it can become an unhealthy obsession. Protect your health by sticking to healthy goals and expectations.

Set yourself up for success

Still unsure of what to do? Read our guide for Everything You Need to Know About How to Start Running. Reach out to your local Fleet Feet to find a running group near you to get the guidance, structure and accountability to keep you on track. You’ve got this.

By Kate Schwartz. Schwartz has been running competitively for over 20 years, and she currently runs with the Asheville Running Collective. She lives in Asheville, NC, with her husband, Alex, and their cat, Clementine.

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