On the surface, running seems pretty straightforward: just put one foot in front of the other. But once you become a regular runner, you quickly realize there’s more to this sport than meets the eye — and it’s easy to make running mistakes that can ultimately lead to injury or lack of progress.
Here, experts reveal the most common running mistakes that might be holding you back — plus tips to overcome them.
Running Mistake #1: Ramping Up Too Quickly
One of the most common running mistakes is going too hard, too soon. When runners increase their mileage or intensity before their bodies are ready for it, they may develop overuse injuries like shin splints, runner’s knee, or plantar fasciitis.
Runners at all levels often overdo their training, but it’s especially common among newer runners and runners training for their first marathon, says Nick Hilton, Olympic Trials marathon qualifier, manager of Run Flagstaff specialty store, and a Run S.M.A.R.T. Project coach based in Flagstaff, Arizona.
“It can be discouraging because you’re just starting this journey and you want to progress, but then you get hurt and it’s just this cycle of injury and re-injury,” Hilton says. This cycle can ultimately turn people off from running altogether.
To help prevent injury, start slow and make gradual increases. If you’re a beginner, Hilton recommends starting with light interval training:
- Alternate a one-minute jog with two minutes of walking until you reach the 30-minute mark.
- Do this three times a week for a couple of weeks until it starts to feel easier, and then shift to a one-minute jog, one-minute walk format.
- Keep reducing your walking time until you’re able to run for the full 30 minutes.
Once you’re able to run for 30 minutes per day four times per week for two to three weeks straight, you can start increasing your run time by 5 to 15 minutes as needed to continue to feel challenged, Hilton says.
Running Mistake #2: Skipping Strength Training
To become a better runner, you need to run. But many runners do so to the exclusion of all else, believing that cross-training is a waste of time. Some even believe the myth that strength training will make them slower.
Don’t be one of those runners. If you only run, you miss out on the benefits of cross-training. And strength training is an especially beneficial form of cross-training for runners, Hilton says.
Still not convinced? Studies also suggest that strength training can help reduce sports injuries to less than one-third and cut overuse injuries in half. And staying injury-free is one of the best ways to stay consistent (and see progress) with your running program.
Hilton recommends total-body strength training one or two days per week, making sure to hit all of your key running muscles, including your glutes, hamstrings, quads, calves, and core. (Here’s a great runner-friendly strength routine to get you started.)
Running Mistake #3: Wearing the Wrong Shoes
Whether you’re pounding the pavement close to home or trying out a new running trail, what you put on your feet will have a huge impact on the quality of your workout and how much you enjoy it.
Unfortunately, many runners choose their shoes based on price or style, as opposed to fit and comfort. “I tell people that it doesn’t matter what the shoe looks like,” Hilton says. “It’s about being comfortable and having something that functions really well.”
To find the best running shoes, running coaches Niki Harrington and Erin Carr — owners of Union Running in Fairhaven, Massachusetts — advise their runners to look for shoes that fit the following criteria:
- Wide toe box: Many running shoes taper at the front, which scrunches your toes together and throws off your running alignment. A wider toe box allows your toes to spread the way they’re supposed to.
- Comfort: Research suggests this may be the most important factor in injury prevention. The heel drop (the difference in height between the heel and the front of the shoe) and cushion (the softness of the sole) should feel immediately comfortable — you shouldn’t feel like you have to break them in.
- Flexible materials: If your running shoes are too stiff, it can affect your running mechanics. And according to the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine, there should also be some flexibility in the sole where your toes meet the foot.
- Little to no toe spring: Toe spring refers to how high your shoe’s toe box is above the ground. An overly elevated toe spring can hold your toes in an unnaturally extended position, so look for shoes with little to no elevation in the toe box. (Some flexible shoes may appear to have a high toe spring, but this should go away once you start wearing them.)
When in doubt, visit a specialty running store for expert guidance.
Mistake #4: Skimping on Recovery Food
“Some people — especially if they have a busy lifestyle — will run, shower, and get on their way, and won’t have anything [to eat] for a couple of hours,” Hilton says.
We get it. But what you do after a run is important, too. And slacking on your post-run nutrition will actually limit your body’s ability to recover and adapt. “It’s going to make the next couple of runs a little more difficult,” Hilton says.
Even if you’re not hungry, try to eat something with protein and carbohydrates right away, Hilton says. Something as simple as a protein bar or shake can kick-start the recovery process.
Mistake #5: Running with Bad Form
Not only is it inefficient, but running with improper form places extra stress on your joints, increasing your risk of injury. And believe it or not, your job might be making it worse.
If you spend a lot of time hunched over a desk, Harrington says, that can lead to wonky running mechanics: “A lot of times, people are in a fixed position for a long period of time, and they’re not used to standing tall,” she says. That can result in a stiffer gait with short, tight steps.
To counteract the effects that sitting may be having on your running form, Harrington recommends taking regular walks during the day, as well as strengthening your core and glutes. Stretching breaks can help as well.
To improve your running form, focus on running tall with a slight forward lean and with your shoulders relaxed, your elbows bent 90 degrees, your arms moving forward and backward (not across your body). You might also find it helpful to work with a running coach who can help you perfect your form.
Mistake #6: Eating More Calories than You Burn
You might think that if you go out and run for an hour, you can eat whatever you want afterward, Hilton says. Unfortunately, that just isn’t true; you still need to keep an eye on nutrition. Research suggests we’re likely to overestimate how many calories we burn during exercise — and to increase our calorie intake by more than we actually burned.
In one study, participants were assigned to a treadmill workout that burned either 200 calories or 300 calories. After their workouts, they were asked to estimate how many calories they burned, and then consume that amount of calories from a buffet.
On average, participants thought they had burned 3 to 4 times more calories than they actually burned — and they consumed 2 to 3 times more calories than they burned. (For example, on average, the participants who burned 200 calories thought they had burned 825 calories, and they consumed 556 calories at the buffet.)
Not surprisingly, this can lead to weight gain over time. When you’re just getting started with running, it can help to use a weight-loss app (like MyFitnessPal) that allows you to estimate how many calories you burn and consume in a day.