There is no doubt that runners place a lot of stress on their bodies when they train for marathons. The kind of mileage that properly training for a marathon requires means there is usually a much higher risk for injury than for someone who simply runs for exercise or who is training for a shorter distance race. So how do you prevent injury so you can get to the starting line ready to roll?
The best way to prevent injury in marathon training is to do about 80% of your runs at an easy, conversational pace (through long easy runs, recovery runs, warm-ups and cool-downs), build mileage gradually week-to-week and incorporating strength training.
We’ll discuss these top strategies to follow to prevent injury during your marathon training along with several others that will keep your body healthy even as you run all those miles. Before we get started on our top 8 tips to stay injury-free from start of your marathon training until you cross that finish line, it will help to know why it’s so common in the first place.
Why Injury During Marathon Training is So Common
I get a lot of different reactions when I tell people that I’m training for a marathon, but one of them I’ve heard several times is, “Isn’t that dangerous?!” This led me to write the following post: “The Dangers of Marathon Running and How to Avoid Them.” Essentially yes, there are risks involved just like any other sport, but I would never call it dangerous. HOWEVER, I do think that many people don’t train the right way and that puts them at a very large risk for injury during training or the race itself.
Many people think that training for a marathon is simply running lots and lots of miles at your goal marathon pace. In fact, that was what I thought even up until a few years ago. But if this is the route you choose to take, you are putting yourself up for a high chance of hurting yourself.
Likely this will come in the form of an injury in the lower limbs – probably something in your feet, ankles, calves or knees. According to this study, 58% of all runners surveyed from a major city race had incurred some form of injury leading up to the race and some even had more than one injury. And according to this published study, “A history of running-related injuries has been shown to be a strong predictor of the occurrence of new running-related injuries.” That means that once you get one, it’s very common for it to return. Another great reason to do all the right things to prevent any injury in the first place.
The overarching reason that runners get injured during marathon training is doing too much too soon and skipping all the “boring” stuff that recovers the body. But that work is just as necessary as everything else.
Here we’re going over everything you need to do to prevent injury during marathon training so you can get to the marathon start line ready to slay.
Top 8 Ways to Prevent Injury in Marathon Training
1. Implement Recovery (Very Easy Paced) Run Days
Until I started working with a coach, I was terrible about taking the easy days easy. This usually came from a place of boredom or just needing to get a run completed so that I could move on with my day. What ended up happening was that I was spending too much percentage of my week running at a moderate to hard pace.
In my article, “Train Slower to Run a Faster Marathon,” I discuss how around 75-80% of your weekly mileage should be run at an easy pace (or at least 2 minutes slower than your 5k pace.)
One of the biggest reasons why this is necessary is to avoid injury. Even moderate-paced running at wreak havoc on your body if you do too much of it. And when you’re training for a marathon and running 5-6 days per week, there’s only so much your body can take before it pushes back and derails your training by saying, “Enough!”
So how do you get the right balance? Though they’re not the full answer, recovery days are a key part of getting plenty of easy running between the hard days.
I go in depth how to fit recovery days into your training cycle here, but in a nutshell:
You want a recovery day between every hard day of running.
Now hard days don’t necessarily mean fast. They can be speedwork days, medium long runs, and long runs. Any run that pushes your body past it’s norm as a way of carving out new fitness, that would be a hard day – and it deserves a day of recovery (but in the form of running).
My 5k pace is just over a 7 minute/mile, so I like to keep my recovery runs aroun 9.5 – 10-minute mile/pace.
2. Include a Warm-Up and Cool-Down for Every Run
Implementing a warm-up and a cool-down should be included in any type of run that includes some “work.” In other words, if it’s not a recovery run or a shorter easy-paced run, warming up and cooling down are important for injury prevention.
Here’s how to implement both warming up and cooling down as part of your running routine and how the reduce injury risk.
As previously mentioned, foam rolling and dynamic stretching are great ways to warm up the body before heading out for your run. Beyond that, a running warm up also needs to be included – essentially at a very easy pace. This can build as you get into your run and your muscles start to loosen. Warm ups allow blood flow to each of the body tissues to ensure they are ready for more resistance as you pick up the pace. Warming up for at least a mile or around 10 minutes is a good rule of thumb.
The cool down often gets neglected moreso than the warm up simply because you just want to be done with your run and get on with your. I get it – I’ve been there! But I never run anymore without cooling down because I can tell it makes a difference in how my body responds to training. Easing out of a run gradually drops the heart rate and starts the recovery process of repairing any microtears that may have occurred during the hard work of your run. At least one mile or 10 minutes at a significantly slowed pace is a good place to start – remember that there is no such thing as too slow.
3. Build Mileage Gradually from Week-to-Week
One of the biggest mistakes that runners training for marathons make is building up mileage way too quickly.
Marathon runners are an ambitious bunch so once they’re ready to train, they’re usually all in. Which is usually great, right? The problem is that some marathon plans that promise you can train for a marathon properly in 12 weeks sound appealing but they’re not a safe way to train and they’re not going to get you your best race anyway.
Some of the most common injuries that show up from marathon training – Achilles tendonitis, plantar fasciitis, joint pain and stress fractures – occur from building mileage too quickly.
Here’s how to ensure you don’t let that happen:
- Keep weekly mileage increases to around 10% or less. In other words, if you run 37 miles one week, the next week should be about 40, with the next being 44. It may not seem like much of an increase, but it’s what your body can handle.
- Have proper base mileage before beginning any marathon training program. Starting marathon training completely from scratch is a bad idea. As you’re choosing a marathon training program, I write about many popular ones here, pay attention to the first week of mileage. Make sure that it’s not 10% more than what your body can already do. Being able to consistently run at least 20-25 miles per week is usually necessary to be ready to start a marathon training program.
4. Add in Strength Training
You’re a runner, so you’re strong, right? Maybe you can run 50 miles plus per week and maybe you’re even really fast. Clearly your heart is a well-oiled machine. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re strong in a “muscular strength” sense.
According to this article from NBC News, “Combined capacity and load limits determine how resilient a runner’s tissues are. When those limits are low, the odds for injury go up and performance can go down. This is where strength training comes in.”
If you find you keep getting injured, and you’re not strength training, this is likely the part of your training that’s missing.
As a runner, it can be difficult to find the time to include strength training into your regimen. For me personally, it’s been tough to stay consistent with a program at home. This is why I love Orangetheory (read here about how incorporate OTF classes into my marathon training). I like that they just tell me what to do and I know it’s keeping me strong. Is it always specific to what I need as a runner? Not necessarily, but it’s full body and I know I’m working various muscles.
If you want an at-home program that’s specific to runners’ needs, I highly recommend Running Rewired, by Jay Dicharry. This is a book I own and I’ve incorporate his work to some extent (but I admit I need to do it more consistently). But many runners swear by his methods!
5. Make Dynamic Stretching and Foam Rolling a Priority
Dynamic stretching and foam rolling pre- and post-run are two of the most often skipped elements of a proper running regimen. Often this is because you already spend so much time running that by the time you throw these two into the mix, it feels like you’re dedicating a lot of time to your training.
And you are. Marathon training is tough, for sure. Going into it I think everyone knows they’re going to have to dedicate a lot of time but with all of the necessary “extras” to perform your best it ends up being even more.
It’s important to remember that dynamic stretching and static stretching are not the same thing. Reaching down to your toes and holding it there or simply doing bending your knee and pulling your foot up to your booty is not what we’re talking about here. In fact, no basis has been found for static stretching preventing running injury (and in fact you might even hurt yourself by pushing it too far.)
Instead, We want to see you complete dynamic stretching where you are actually moving your joints and muscles.
It can help prevent injury by increasing blood flow and getting more oxygen to the parts of the body you’ll be using while you run. It gets joints prepared, as well. You can find some great dynamic exercises below:
I talk a little bit about my experience with my foam rolling in my article, “How to Overcome Running Fatigue.” But it’s not only important for working through discomfort leftover from a tough running workout, but it’s also necessary to foam roll as a preventative measure as well.
A couple of years ago (before I had ever used a foam roller before) I was experiencing a lot of tightness in my calves. I just chocked it up to natural running fatigue, but really I had amped up my mileage too quickly. Which in itself is enough to cause injury but had a I been foam rolling I probably would’ve avoided what I would describe as a “frozen” calf muscle that stopped my running dead in its tracks and relegated me to healing in the pool for the next 2 weeks.
Foam rolling allows for what’s called “myofascial release.” UPMC discusses in this article how this process that focuses on lubricating the muscles can help improve tight muscles as well range of motion and mobility. If you’ve never tried foam rolling, it’s time to start. And if it’s uncomfortable, that means you’re doing it right.
6. Alternate Your Shoes Between Runs
This isn’t actually something I started doing until recently. I was listening to my favorite podcast, Running Rogue, and the new coach they’d recently hired, Brad Hudson, and he mentioned how important it was to change up running shoes during training to prevent injury (this was among the controversial discussion about the Nike Vaporfly shoes).
This study supports his advice.
I pulled out my Hokas (which I don’t love) but started wearing them any time I had a recovery run on a treadmill. I could immediately feel a difference in where the stress was being placed in my feet, ankles and legs. This is now a practice that I always follow.
Similarly, changing up running surfaces is not a bad idea either – you can read more about that here.
7. Change Up the Pace Between Runs
Do you go out and run at the same pace every single time? I did this for YEARS. I think it’s really common. I would say people who do this fall in on of two camps:
Camp 1: You run every run too fast. This was my husband and me. We would go out and do every run basically as fast as we could. I literally though that was the best way to train for a 5k/10k race. If you can run fast in training, you can run fast during your race right? This worked fine for us at the time because we only ran 2 or 3 times per week. If you try to do this in marathon training, getting hurt is not a matter of if, but when.
Camp 2: You run every run easy. Now, there is nothing wrong with this AT ALL if you simple enjoy running recreationally. These people love getting out and enjoying the outdoors while exercising. But they’re generally keeping their heartrate low and probably truly love runnning because they’re not spending the time gasping for air. Though you won’t get injured doing this in marathon training, you’re not doing yourselves any favors in the speed department if that’s a goal of yours.
So how do you become a faster marathon runner while also preventing injury?
You vary the pace throughout the week. Utilizing warm ups, cool downs and recovery runs will naturally help a “speedster” type slow down when they need to in order to stay injury free. But varying the pace in harder workouts will help, too. This is one reason that my coach mixes up quality work – sometimes it’s marathon pace, sometimes 5k pace and sometimes a mixture of it all.
Changing up the pace means you’re not placing the same amount of stress and load in the exact same spots for every stride you make.
Pro tip: Having trouble slowing down or mixing up the pace? Head to the trails! This is a perfect way to get on different terrain (which can also help with injury prevention) but it will also force you to SLOW DOWN.
8. Work With a Coach
One of the best parts about working with a coach for me was his expertise in training in a way that reduces injury prevention. At first I honestly thought the plan might not be rigorous enough, but I was absolutely wrong about that. I was able to safely increase my weekly mileage to the highest it’s ever been (60 miles per week) while completing tougher workouts than I had before. And that’s because he focused on hard days hard, easy days easy. There was just as much emphasis on recovery as there was on speedwork.
Could you do this on your own? Of course! But the beauty of having a coach is that they know what they are doing and if you are honest with them about your training and how you’re feeling, they can advise you on your next steps. For instance, you may push too hard and end up injuring yourself if you’re on your own whereas a coach is there to help you know when you need to back off.
Staying Injury-Free During Marathon Training IS Possible
Thousands and thousands of runners cross marathon finish lines around the world every year without any injuries in the process of getting there. While marathons can be hard on the body, if you plan ahead, pay attention to your body and follow my 8 tips for preventing injury during marathon training, you have a high likelihood of crushing your marathon in tip-top shape. Now go get it!