5 Keys to Injury-Free Running

A smooth runs depends on flexibility, warm ups and cool downs, proper form and the right shoes.

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So, you've decided to take up running. Fabulous! You might find that running can be many things: exciting, relaxing, challenging, body-changing and even addictive. I happen to think it's nothing short of fantastic – that is, until you accidentally injure yourself.

Of course, no one hurts herself on purpose, so when an injury does occur, it's indicative of the frustration of it all. You're minding your business, enjoying yourself, and then out of nowhere – pain! And sometimes you don't even feel the injury during the run; it might sneak up on you afterward. Either way, there are a few factors that contribute to a wide array of common running injuries, and a little attention to these five key details will make a huge difference in your ability to avoid injury:

Flexibility. Flexibility plays an integral role in widening your body's range of motion. Plus, most flexibility training can also make your body more agile, too. It's easier to twist to look to your sides without it affecting your glide forward, which could cause ankle injuries. Tight muscles become injured much more easily than flexible ones (think IT band), and cross training for flexibility through an activity such as yoga or Pilates makes a huge difference.

Warm-ups. The newer you are to running, the more you need that warm-up. The warm-up is a way of introducing your body to the activity – a sort of call to arms to let your body know it's preparing to put in some major work. Giving your body the time to gradually raise your blood pressure and body temperature improves its efficiency. Blood is pumping, oxygen is moving, synapses start firing – and before you know it – you're off! A good running warm-up includes a nice stretch for both legs and arms, a brisk walk and then a slow jog that naturally builds into a run at your usual pace.

Proper running form. Many factors contribute to someone's running form, from bow legs to fleshy inner thighs to a bad back and more. These circumstances can affect the way a person runs, and that running form can contribute to everything from heel spurs and plantar fasciitis to excessive soreness in the hips. Spend a little time finding a way to run that works best for your body type.

Every body is different, so "proper form" can't be defined the same for everyone. The mid-foot strike without over-pronation may be ideal for some, but others may have difficulty getting there if they're bowlegged or fleshy-thighed. Also, if you're someone who runs for weight loss, as your body changes, so will your form, and you'll want to be mindful of that.

Most running stores, athletics retailers and even training teams offer some form of insight into what kind of running gait you have. If problems arise, consider a gait analysis to determine whether or not your form could use a tune up.

Cool downs. After your workout, do you just run home, peel off your clothes and plop down on the couch? Skipping your cool down – your warm-up in reverse – can leave you terribly sore, dizzy, stiff and in a world of hurt the next morning. As you're nearing the end of your run, don't just stop running and then walk. Instead, lower your speed slowly. Next, transition from a jog to a brisk walking pace, and then come to a complete stop and stretch.

The right running shoes. Lastly, the right shoe can make or break your runs. The way your shoes accommodate your arch (for high arches, consider inserts) and support your gait affects how your ankles, knees and hips respond to the impact of your feet hitting the ground. Shop for running shoes the same way you shop for a car – test them! (Jog inside the store if you must; no one's judging.) Check out what's under the hood, and remember that the best shoe for your needs won't always be the most expensive. The shoe that is right for you will provide quality traction, flexibility and breathability. It will fit to your foot and support it – and you – on your path.

Erika Nicole Kendall is the writer behind the award-winning blog, A Black Girl's Guide to Weight Loss, where she chronicles her journey of going from 330-pound couch potato to a certified personal trainer, nutritionist, and all-around fitness dynamo. Ask her your health and fitness-related questions on Twitter at @bgg2wl.