The advice you’ve been following could be doing you more harm than good. Matt Phillips separates the fact from fiction to expose some common myths about running-related injuries

Myths abound when it comes to running-related injuries. Is stretching important? Should you be strength-training to a void running injury? And what about shoes – can the wrong shoes put you at risk? Research shows the incidence of running-related injuries per year ranges from 19.4-79.3 per cent , with 3-59 injuries per 1,000 hours of running. The research also showed that since the early 1980s, there had been no decrease in the incidence rate, despite advances in shoe technology and training methodology. How can this be? Do we not yet know what causes running injuries? The simple answer is no. Exactly why some runners get injured while others don’t, remains a mystery. One of the biggest problems with this lack of certainty is that it leaves many injured runners open to misinterpretation and myth, which when wrapped up and presented as “magic bullets” tend to, understandably, sell like hot cakes. Here, we aim to dispel some of these myths and in doing so help you have a clearer picture of what you can do to reduce the risk of running-related injury.

What do runners think causes injury?

To start busting some myths, it is useful to first have an idea of what the average runner currently believes the risk factors are for injury. A study of recreational runners by Bruno Tirotti Saragiotto, at the George Institute for Global Health in Sydney, found that most of those questioned believed the following were the risk factors when running:

  • Not stretching
  • Wearing the  wrong shoes
  • Excess training
  • Lack of strength
  • Not warming up
  • Not respecting the body’s limitations

Yet many of these beliefs are simply not supported by research.

Myth: Pre-run stretching

If there is one thing that running research is pretty much agreed on, it is that static stretching before a run does not help reduce injury or increase performance. In a study in 2000, 1,538 male army recruits who ran a lot, were put through 12 weeks of training, with half of them performing a 20-second static stretch for each of six major leg muscle groups during every warm-up. After the 12 weeks, there was little difference in number of lower-limb injuries between the groups. There were 158 injuries in the “stretch” group, and 175 in the “nonstretch” group. The study concluded that if you have a normal range of movement , stretching is “unlikely to do anything to prevent injury”. Some studies go even further. Research in 2010 found that stretching may even decrease performance and increase energy cost, which is not particularly attractive for any runner.

Myth: Post-run static stretching

Most runners who stretch after a run do so because they believe it reduces the amount of soreness over the next few days (DOMS: delayed onset of muscle soreness) and believe it will help reduce risk of injury. Some runners find that missing out a post-run stretch results in more next-day soreness, while others feel little difference whether they stretch or not. Some runners are surprised to find that they are actually less sore if they do not stretch after a run. As the mixed batch of responses to post-exercise stretching suggests, there is no research to support the idea that stretching after a run can reduce next day soreness. If anything, data collected highlights the fact that there is too much variety in human physiology to draw any solid conclusions. As far as showing that stretching after a run reduces risk of injury, this is virtually impossible. There are simply too many other factors that could be responsible. However, if for some reason you have a reduced range of movement in a specific muscle group then specific stretching to help restore that range could help, but as a method of general injury prevention it is likely that too many runners spend too much time after a run trying to achieve a range of movement they will never need. So there we have our first myth. In the majority of cases, static stretching is not an evidence supported way to prevent running related injury.

Myth: Heel-striking

Ok, this wasn’t in the list but it fits in nicely here since we seem to be on a bit of a myth roll… I have added it because I still get runners on a weekly basis convinced they are injured because they are a heelstriker, or those who have forced a change from heel-strike to forefoot strike and are now wondering why their calf and Achilles are tender. My answer includes reference to a study by Peter Larson (2010), called “Foot strike patterns in Recreational Marathon Runners.” Larson and some students filmed marathon runners at the 10km (6 mile) & 32km (20 mile) point and later classified them according to their foot strike. The results were as follows:

10km (936 runners):
Heel strike: 88.9%; midfoot: 3.4%; forefoot: 1.8%; asymmetrical 5.9%

32km (286 runners):
Heel strike: 93%; Forefoot: 0%

Either all those marathon runners were doing it wrong, or somehow we have turned into a nation of forefoot wannabes. The answer is, not all heelstrikes are equal. The reason that heelstriking got a bad name is that it tends to accompany an “over-stride”, i.e. when the leading leg reaches out too far in front of you causing a landing on a either a locked-out or close-to straight knee. Over-striding has been linked to injury, but the heel-strike has nothing to do with it. Some runners land closer in front of their body and still manage to land on their heel; this form of heel striking has no association with increased risk of injury.

Myth: The wrong shoes

If there’s one thing runners love, it’s knowing if they’re wearing the right trainers. Most of you will be familiar with terms like “overpronation” and have probably been recommended shoes according to your foot/arch type . It may therefore come as a bit of a surprise to some of you to hear that many studies such as Richards (2009) “Is your prescription
of distance running shoes evidence-based?” conclude that the prescription of running shoes using this foot/arch type is not evidence-based. The problem with labelling a certain amount
of arch drop during running as “overpronation”, is that we really don’t know how much is normal. Anatomical structure and function can both vary considerably from one foot to another, so placing all runners into just three categories simply doesn’t make sense. What the medial arch does on slow motion video is not a viable model for prescribing a running shoe. The only question runners should really ask about their shoes is: “Are they comfortable to run in?”

Myth: Magic number 180SPM

We could not end our feature about the myths of running injury without busting one of the most common myths that concerns cadence: the one that says “we should all be running at 180spm (spm = steps per minute). This myth is the result of a misinterpretation of research done by the famous running coach Jack Daniels. At the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, Jack Daniels noticed that the elite distance runners all ran at 180spm or more. The important part of that sentence is “or more”. Many of the elites recorded by Daniels were running above 190spm. It is also vital to note that these athletes were elite athletes, running at elite paces. Cadence varies with speed. The Jamaican sprinter, Usain Bolt, runs his 100m with a cadence of 221spm. We should never expect recreational runners, with lower paces, to run at over 180spm.

Matt Phillips is a Running Performance Coach & Injury Specialist at StrideUK & Studio57clinic. Follow Matt on Twitter@sportinjurymatt