This is Why You’re Injured: Risky Treatment, Bad Advice, and Laughable Coaching

by Jason Fitzgerald

Over the last several years, I’ve been on a mission to learn the most effective training for runners – so I can help runners like you race faster, get stronger, and stay healthy.

Running Race

I received my coaching education from USA Track & Field – and earned a near perfect score on the test.

I’ve rigorously studied the best books and training programs (I own almost all of them and refer to them constantly).

I’ve interviewed and spoken with the brightest minds in the sport, asking them tough questions about what works, what doesn’t, and our biggest misconceptions about injuries.

But more importantly, I’ve tested the best training methods on thousands of athletes. The results speak for themselves.

What I’ve learned can certainly help you run fast. But maybe more importantly, it can help you stay healthy and run pain free.

And predictably, years of working with runners has shown that there are many misconceptions about injuries. Runners think they’re doing the right thing but are just making it worse, like:

  • Stretching your Achilles when you have tendinopathy (ouch!)
  • Taking a month off after ITBS (rest rarely works)
  • Getting custom orthotics when plantar fasciitis strikes (why?!)

But it’s not our fault that we don’t know what to do. I spent a decade running with constant injuries thinking I was doing the right thing when I was totally wrong.

Thankfully, I’ve turned it all around – I haven’t had a serious injury since 2009. You can read my full injury story here.

The problem is that major running media sources don’t filter their content at all. So clueless writers publish material that is useless at best and downright dangerous at worst.

Today I want to share just a few examples of what I’ve found. I could give you a hundred but I’d rather focus on solutions rather than the problems. That’s why this entire month is focused on injury prevention (make sure you don’t miss anything by joining my injury prevention group here).

So here are three pieces of risky injury advice that are perpetuated by alleged experts that you should avoid like the plague. Seriously, this is real content that I found on the biggest running websites on the web.

Stretching is a No Brainer (or is it?)

Want to prevent injuries? And fainting (WTF)? Just stretch!

Bad Prevention 1

Here’s the truth: stretching does absolutely nothing in terms of injury prevention. Zip. Nada.

In a review of the existing scientific studies, Runner’s World columnist and exercise science writer Alex Hutchinson concluded the same thing in his book. He wrote:

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reviewed 361 [studies] in 2004. ‘Stretching was not significantly associated with a reduction in total injuries,’ they concluded. Moreover, ‘use of stretching as a prevention tool against sports injury has been based on intuition and unsystematic observation rather than scientific evidence.’ Subsequent reviews, most recently in 2008, have reached the same conclusion.”

While “cooling down” is critical when finishing a hard workout, you’re best served by running easy and then completing a post-run core workout.

Not only is the act of stretching unhelpful in preventing injuries (plus it can actually lead to injuries if you stretch before running), but simply being flexible also has no influence on staying healthy.

Hutchinson writes:

“The weak link in the chain of logic is the assumption that being more flexible protects you from injury. Most muscle injuries occur within the normal range of movement… ‘If injuries usually occur within the normal range of motion,’ McGill University sports doctor Ian Shrier asked in a widely cited editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2000, ‘why would an increased range of motion prevent injury?’”

The science is clear: you don’t need to stretch. Instead, get stronger.

How NOT to Run Intervals

A classic mistake I see most runners make is running too fast. It’s almost universal.

So when I see advice like this, my blood boils.

Bad Workout Advice

This is not a random person on Twitter. This is an editor of a major fitness magazine encouraging runners to run workouts at an intensity that likely has no relevance to their goal race. This advice is deeply flawed and showcases the author has no idea what the purpose of an “interval workout” actually is or what it accomplishes.

Intervals can be any distance or pace – like tempo or marathon pace. Or they can be at your mile race pace (really fast!) but only for 200 meters and with a full recovery. So that’s not very hard at all.

But this “expert” just encouraged over 5,000 people to run way too fast, with no context about pace, distance, when this workout should happen during the training cycle, or the recovery. How shameful.

And running too fast (especially “dying” for the rest period) is a huge injury risk.

Sigh…

Stay Healthy…By Not Running!

The best way to never get injured is to never run. But what runner wants to do that?

I laughed in despair when I saw this injury prevention “wisdom:”

Bad Prevention3

Bad Prevention4

Ugh. Is this really the “top” advice from running’s leading experts?

Running 3-4 days per week is not an adequate injury prevention method. It’s a surefire way to limit your performance, feel awkward on the days that you run (the more you run, the more efficient you become – which can prevent injuries!), and potentially never run another personal best.

And walking? C’mon, don’t bullshit me. Walking when you’re fatigued is a great way to run slower. When so many runners want to run an entire race, suggestions to walk more just keeps many runners down. Only a small minority of beginners should be taking walk breaks (I know; I’ve written plenty of run-walk plans for new runners).

But from an injury perspective, it’s virtually useless. There are far better ways to stay healthy that don’t have the side effect of making you slower.

Looking at this mainstream advice, it’s no wonder my inbox fills up with stories like these:

“I lost so much speed from being sidelined by injuries. Then I have to start over again. I would have qualified for Boston by now if I didn’t have to take so much time off. Plus, losing the mental release from running puts me in a deep depression.”

“Most of the time I knew an injury was coming, but still ran anyway hoping that it would eventually go away or because I was so tired of being injured and having to take it easy. Injuries are frustrating because once I target one injury and work on correcting/strengthening the area another one seems to pop up somewhere else, like I am always doing something wrong. And when I am not injured I am almost scared to train harder in fear of triggering another injury.”

“As a new runner I felt like I was constantly getting injured. It was frustrating not to be able to get on a schedule cause I was always taking days off. I felt like I was stuck in neutral, never improving.”

Let’s make sure this never happens to you.

What to Do Instead

Here’s my rapid fire advice column in response to these mainstream suggestions:

  1. You don’t have to do any static stretching. Instead, warm up with a dynamic stretching routine and finish with a light core or strength session.
  2. Run workouts at the appropriate pace based on your fitness level, purpose of the workout, and goal race. Workouts are not races.
  3. Running fewer days per week is counterproductive to running faster. And it reduces your efficiency and overall fitness level. Not recommended as a form of injury prevention.
  4. Walking is only necessary if you’re a total beginner and can’t complete the prescribed distance. But walk because you need it to finish the distance – not to reduce your injury risk.

While it’s important to do the right training and injury prevention work in your running program, it’s also important to avoid the wrong things. This article is designed to help you weed out the coaching advice that won’t help – so you can focus on what matters.

I have a new presentation for the runners on my injury prevention list about three specific times when you’re more likely to get hurt.

Injuries aren’t necessarily equal opportunity offenders. They often strike when you’re most vulnerable and I’m going to share when that is (so you can be extra careful).

If you’d like to get the presentation, just sign up here and I’ll send it to you.

Stay healthy and run strong!

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{ 17 comments }

Mary

I am proud to say I run only 3 days a week with the FIRST program. I find that Run Less Run Faster as kept me injury free. Each of my runs has a purpose and a pace assigned to it. I also Cross train. Perhaps the cross training, strength training, and cool down routine has kept me injury free.

Jillian

This is great. Classic case you referenced, I’m trying to BQ in May after having to forgo an October marathon due to injury. Looking forward to trying your advice this time around.

Dave

I couldn’t disagree with you more about the static stretching. When I started having back pain my chiropractor told me to stretch my hams–pain went away. When I had a case of the runners knee, my PT told me to stretch my quads–pain went away. When I had bursitis in the hip, the same chiropractor told me to stretch my IT band–pain went away.

‘If injuries usually occur within the normal range of motion,’ McGill University sports doctor Ian Shrier asked in a widely cited editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2000, ‘why would an increased range of motion prevent injury?’” –The point was missed. Exercising causes muscles to to contract and when contracted enough they can prevent “normal range of motion.” Static stretching after a workout can work to maintain normal range of motion thus preventing injury.

Also, the older we get, especially after 40, the tighter our tendons and muscles tend to become thus causing undue pressure on/in joints. Again, stretching is the preventative maintenance for joint damage. My PT told me that most joint replacement clients he has had could have prevented the surgery if they had regularly stretched because it was in large part tightness of muscles and tendons that caused undue pressure in the joint causing it to wear out prematurely. This was the case in my shoulder surgery. Strengthening weak muscles would also have been in order.

So yeah, I disagree. Thanks for all you do! I appreciate the many great pieces of advice I’ve gotten from you.

Jason Fitzgerald

Thanks for the comment Dave. The latest research disagrees with you however on the value of static stretching.

Dave

With utmost respect for you and all you do for so many of us, I do not believe to throw a blanket “stretching does absolutely nothing in terms of injury prevention. Zip. Nada” statement out there to all people in all situations is accurate.

I wonder, the research you looked at, does it take age into consideration. Because as a teen and tween, I did no stretching ever and never had a single running injury. But starting running again after 40, I was overwhelmed with multiple injuries. The cure? A lot of strengthening, yes, but a lot of stretching to begin with in order, again, to relieve undue pressure on joints–particularly the knees. Mostly all I did the one winter was to warm up and stretch. It worked! The next season I was injury free until I rolled an ankle on a steep down hill. But that happens.

I truly appreciate all you do to help me and others, but I’m afraid we may have to agree to disagree with each other on this point. I do, however, want to learn more about the core strengthen after a run. That intrigues me.

Thank you again for all your helpful advice!

Anne

Could you please cite the research papers that point at zero effect of stretching post exercise to prevent injury?

Thanks!

Anne

…to clarify, I’m asking this because I’ve just done a quick search at PubMed for more recent reviews (post 2008), and I can find evidence promoting stretching for the rehabilitation of injuries and/or to prevent injury (particularly hamstring-related injuries).

Jason Fitzgerald

The fact that stretching does not prevent injuries is basically common knowledge at this point. And I strongly recommend Hutchinson’s book which goes over this.

Every runner would be better served to do dynamic stretching pre-run and a light core/strength session after the run. If static stretching makes you feel better, you can do it after the core/strength work but its effects aren’t significant.

Marcia Boyle

Coach Jason, I wrote a post last year about stretching as well. My research matches up with yours exactly. While stretching may feel good at times, it’s core value is to increase flexibility. If your sport doesn’t require enhanced flexibility, or you’re a recreational athlete who’s livelihood does not depend on excelling in your sport (like most of us) stretching is not required. It’s hard to let go of a notion we’ve been taught for so long. That doesn’t mean I have quit stretching – like so many things, “it’s a personal preference”. Nice article. Thanks for your ongoing advice.

Deb

I agree..I believe in warm-ups & core for running improvement, but don’t waste much time on static stretching (except the piriformis stretch which works well to relieve pressure on the nerve). I have been able to run continuous for 3.5 years with only 1 real injury that set me back just 9 days of no running. One friend who stretches more than anyone else I know is also the most injured, losing weeks and months at a time each year. Her 1st injury started with a yoga stretch, others were overuse, but she is still stretching away on the sidelines while I get to run. The same time spent on core and actually running would probably yield better results.

Jim

This is a sincere question, please do not take it as sarcasm. Have you read Galloway’s books on how incorporating walk breaks resulting in PR’s for even elite runners? (Those runners were skeptical too). Is your objection to run breaks based on experience,logic, and intuition, or is there any science behind your position on this? I agree with your conclusions on static stretching, having read much of the literature myself. (I am a physician, and am very data-driven. I have very little faith in anecdotes and logical conclusions, preferring solid research). I find your columns very interesting and helpful.

Jason Fitzgerald

No sarcasm inferred! I have not read Galloway’s books, but I’m highly skeptical. If that strategy works, why do we not see it at any race at the competitive level? I’ve been running competitively for over 15 years – HS, college, and in some of the biggest road races in the country – and I’ll share this data with you: none of the top runners are walking.

Beirti

“The science is clear: you don’t need to stretch.”

Jason – are you saying that you don’t do any post-workout stretching? This conflicts with everything I’ve been taught from physical education through pilates, personal training, running coaching and even personal experience.

I certainly agree with avoiding pre-stretching before intense workouts due to the chance of injury but on days when I skip stretching, I tend to feel more cramped.

Dave

That’s what I’m saying, Beitri. After yesterday’s long run I purposely did not stretch and as suggested did a core workout instead ’cause I am here to learn. But now this morning I’m having a very tough time getting up and moving around. I’m sore from the lower back down to my ankles. This consistently happens when I don’t stretch and consistently does not happen when I do. Meaning no offense at all but I can’t buy what the research is apparently showing. There must be a loophole in there that I fall into or something.

Jason Fitzgerald

No, I very rarely do any static stretching. If you do static stretching after your workout, there’s no harm. If it feels good, then keep doing it. But in terms of measurable injury prevention benefit, there’s none. That’s what the research says, that’s what I’ve experienced, and that’s what I’ve learned from working with runners for years. But again, if you like it and it’s done after a core/mobility session (stretching shouldn’t and can’t take the place of that work) then keep doing it.

Sally

“Most muscle injuries occur within the normal range of movement…”
It seems that this might be true because people are mostly running in the normal range of movement. How many people actually run outside of that range? The percentage is probably quite small compared to those staying within their normal range. So, yeah. Of course most injuries occur within the normal range of movement. That is where the numbers are greatest. But for those who actually push themselves beyond that range, I’ll bet the injury rate increases significantly. It seems that stretching would certainly help then because the normal range of movement would be greater.

Jason Fitzgerald

Stretching is done to increase flexibility because it is thought that more flexibility (range of motion) reduces injuries. But injuries usually happen during eccentric contractions within the normal range of motion, so why try to increase that range of motion by stretching? For runners, there’s never a time to go outside of your normal range of motion (as opposed to a gymnast or hockey goaltender – which I think you’re referencing).

Remember that this is a running blog and not a general exercise science site. My filter and bias is for runners!

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