Running is one of the most popular forms of exercise in the world. How many times have you heard someone say, “I’m out of shape. I need to start running.”? There’s no mystery why running is such a popular activity: It’s free to do, requires no equipment, and you can do it anywhere. The physical benefits aren’t bad either—running burns calories, strengthens your heart, and tones your muscles.
However, there are downsides to running, as many long-time runners are well aware. Running too much, with improper footwear, or with bad form can have damaging and lasting effects on your body. Many people aren’t aware of the negative effects of running when they first start, and don’t educate themselves about how to run safely until it’s too late.
The Negative Side-Effects of Running
While some running is good for your heart, too much running can have adverse consequences. If you’ve ever experienced the pounding or racing heart feeling after a hard run, you know that running puts a lot of strain on your heart. And like any muscle, over-straining your heart can cause damage over time. A 2012 study conducted by the Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research found that people who engaged in long-term excessive endurance exercise had an increased risk for heart problems.
Running is also very hard on your joints. A group of researchers from the Moses Cone Family Medicine Center in North Carolina found in a 2010 study that 40 to 50 percent of runners experience a running-related injury ever year. The most common running injuries are shin splints, knee pain, Achilles tendinitis, plantar fasciitis and illiotibial band syndrome.
What about the effect of running on the knees? According to Mindy Solkin, an ACE-certified personal trainer and the founder, owner, and head coach of The Running Center in New York City, “Running doesn't hurt your knees... if you do it correctly.” Unfortunately, most people don’t receive any training about proper form before they start running, which is how running gained its reputation for being bad for your knees.
How to Run Without Damaging Your Body
Running can have a negative impact on your body—but only if you do it with improper form, if you over-train, or if you don’t listen to your body. Follow the tips below to train safely and run without damaging your joints or your body.
1. Take Your Time
As any new runner can attest, it takes time to build up your endurance. However, thanks to programs like “Couch to 5k,” many people are trying to accelerate their training programs to run long races in a too-short amount of time after they start running.
“There are training programs online that indicate that you can get up off the couch and run a 5k in six weeks, or do a half marathon for charity in three months, and some people do get away with that,” says Tracy Ray, an associate professor of orthopedic surgery at Duke University School. “I see the people that don’t, and there are a lot,” he says.
For people who have never run before, Ray recommends starting with running/walking intervals, then progressing to jogging for four minutes and walking for one. They key is to make a little bit of progress each week—and don’t skip the rest days.
2. Use Proper Form
Running without proper form is a surefire way to damage your knees and joints. What is proper running form? Your arms should be bent at a 90-degree angle, your shoulders and hands relaxed, and your core muscles engaged. While running, your foot should strike the ground right below your knee—not in front of it. Use a quick, short stride and focus on pushing up and off the ground.
If you’re not confident that you’re using the right form, consider joining a running club or signing up for an assessment at your local gym to get feedback from a professional.
3. Never Run While Injured
Too many runners try to run through an injury. And yet the research says it’s not running that causes arthritis or injury, it’s running on an already injured or weakened knee. “If you already do have some damage to your knee... you can generate further damage,” says Dr. Ray. “It really depends on the existing health of your knee. If you haven’t had an injury, or you don’t have a diagnosis or X-ray that indicates wear and tear on the cartilage, there’s nothing that would indicate that it’s unsafe for you to train.”
If your knee is hurting while you run or after a run, don’t keep running and hope it will “go away on its own.” Make an appointment with an orthopedic doctor to find out what’s going on, and follow their instructions for getting back into your running routine safely.
Running can be a great way to stay in shape, lose weight, or simply gain the mental health benefits of endorphins. Just make sure you’re following the proper techniques and training tips so that a positive form of exercise doesn’t start reaping negative effects on your body. After all, you only get one.