So you’re ready to run. Kudos to you for trying a seriously tough workout that can take you to new heights (and distances).
But let’s pause for a sec before hitting the trail. From your form to your mental state, certain running techniques can set you up for success, while others might take you down the wrong path.
14 running mistakes to avoid: The quick list
Here are some common pitfalls to pass by when pounding the pavement:
- looking down
- wearing poorly fitted shoes
- letting your arms cross your body
- going too hard too quickly
- breathing unevenly
- lifting your knees too high
- focusing on the difficulty
- not incorporating other types of exercise
- leaning too far forward
- only performing static stretches
- letting your knees touch when you run
- engaging in negative self-talk
- drinking too much water
We dove into 14 of the most common mistakes beginners (and even some veterans) make.
Running is absolutely worth the miles, and it might help you reduce stress, boost your mood, take you to incredible places, and even save you cash on that gym membership. So try to eliminate these potentially disruptive habits from your runs.
1. You’re looking down
“When they first start running, many people tend to stare at their feet because they’re trying to see what’s going on down there,” says Cat Fitzgerald, a physical therapist and running consultant at New York Custom Physical Therapy.
Put some trust in your coordination and set your eyes on the horizon straight in front of you, Fitzgerald says. “It’ll protect your neck. When you’re looking down, your neck is flexed. And then your posture collapses.”
2. You’re wearing the wrong shoe size
“If your feet hurt because the shoes don’t fit right or you’re not running in the perfect shoe for your size and shape, you’re more likely to not continue with the program that you’re beginning,” says Timothy Miller, MD, a sports medicine specialist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
Most likely, you forgot to size up: “You generally need a little more room than you think,” Fitzgerald says. She suggests swinging by a running store for a fitting and gait analysis so an expert can hook you up with shoes that will help prevent injury.
3. You’re overstriding
Meaning: Your foot hits the ground way ahead of your hips, almost like a gazelle, Fitzgerald says. You may be thinking, “Hey, that’s not so bad — gazelles are pretty speedy!” But you are not a gazelle (😱), and overstriding sends a huge shock up your leg with each step. It’s a common tendency for new runners.
“In a beginner’s mind, they need to move forward and progress, so they launch their feet forward as far as they can,” Fitzgerald says. “Really, the power should be coming from your glutes and your hip extension.” To fix it, try taking shorter steps and landing underneath your center of mass, she says.
According to one 2015 study, about 85 strides per minute is golden.
4. Your arms cross your body
While your right arm making its way over toward your left side with each step (or vice versa) isn’t such a bad thing on its own, it’s an indicator that your torso isn’t stable.
“If someone doesn’t have good trunk stability, they’re going to be rotating right to left more. You’ll see that in their arms because their arms rotate right to left more too,” Fitzgerald says. A solid trunk brings balance and stability to your whole body. Plus, it protects your internal organs. And they come in handy from time to time.
You can start to strengthen your core with some of these ab exercises.
5. You set out to run 4 miles right off the bat
Take it down a notch, young Padawan.
“If you’ve never run before and you try to run 3 to 4 miles, you’re probably not going to make it very far,” says Sari Shepphird, PhD, a sports psychologist. She suggests starting small by alternating 3 minutes of running with 3 minutes of walking.
The idea that exercise *simply has to* be intense from the get-go can make physical activity less accessible. That’s just not useful if you’re starting out. Walking can still provide a host of benefits like reducing your risk of high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.
And walking still burns calories, so build up to running in comfortable chunks and the practice will become a lot more sustainable — and that’s when the benefits really start to show.
6. Your breathing is off
We know: There’s a lot to think about. But breathing (a process we normally give little thought to) can help you run longer distances using less energy.
Coupled breathing — breathing in a certain rhythm as you run — can help you become more efficient when you run, according to a 2013 study. The researchers tested 14 participants who took a breath after every two steps, following this pattern:
- Take two steps.
- Take two steps.
Researchers found that this type of breathing reduced the effort of breathing and the overall fatigue of running. One thing you may not have to worry about is whether those inhales and exhales are coming from your nose or mouth. The jury’s still out on which type of breathing is better for you on your run.
7. You lift your knees too high
Fitzgerald usually sees this problem come up when cyclists start running.
“Their dominant muscles are their quads, and that’s going to get the knees up high,” she says. Instead, the power should be coming from strong glutes and hip extension. Fitzgerald suggests that the knees should ideally stay at an angle of less than 45 degrees.
8. You can’t think of anything else but how heavy your legs feel
Just. So. Heavy. If you’re thinking about how hard each step is, you’ll likely tire faster. “Less experienced runners may benefit from distractions while they get going. This might reduce their feelings of fatigue,” Shepphird says.
Pump up the volume on your headphones, watch TV on the treadmill, or run with a friend, she suggests. It’ll take your mind off how heavy your legs feel and keep you from giving up.
If you’re seriously lagging, head outside: Simply being outdoors can make exercise more enjoyable, according to a 2019 review. (The researchers did note that the 28 trials included in the review were pretty weak, with a high risk of bias — but who doesn’t love trees? Embrace the great outdoors and see if it stimulates you to keep running.)
Find your diversion and use it to power through.
9. Running is your only workout
It’s true that running is a solid workout, but it’s no excuse to skimp on strength training. Building up your glute and hip muscles will help you maintain your form, Fitzgerald says.
“You need to strengthen those areas and teach your body to use those muscles so you can run more efficiently and prevent injury,” she says.
Adding strength to your routine can also help build your running endurance, according to a 2021 study of 25 long-distance athletes. The researchers divided the athletes into groups: One group trained on endurance only for 26 weeks, and the other also incorporated strength training over the same period.
The strength-training group saw a boost to their “running economy” — how efficiently they used energy to fuel their performance.
10. You lean too far forward
Many people follow a 9-hour workday spent sitting at a desk by popping up and going for a run. Sound familiar? If so, you may end up with tight hip flexors, which makes you lean forward as you run, Fitzgerald says.
To fix it, incorporate hip flexor stretches into your dynamic warmup. “It helps to activate the glutes in your back and open up the front of the hips,” Fitzgerald says.
11. You only stand and stretch
The two best kinds of stretching are dynamic stretching (when you use movement to activate the muscles) and static stretching (when you stand in place).
But these two types of stretching aren’t interchangeable. “Before running, complete a dynamic warmup with lunges and mini-jumps,” Fitzgerald says.
“Static stretching is better after the run, as there’s a decreased risk for injury at that point with stretching,” she says.
Resist the temptation to follow the run by plopping yourself on the couch (we know, it’s calling out to you). If you do, you’ll eventually start feeling stiff.
12. Your knees touch
It happens frequently among petite female runners, Fitzgerald says: “When they land on each leg, their knee will sort of dive toward the middle of their body, so much so that their knees knock or touch.”
The root of the problem is that your glutes aren’t stabilized enough. Once the glute muscles collapse, the thighbone rotates in and the knees collapse. Fitzgerald suggests that this can lead to problems with the knees and iliotibial band (a thick band of tissue that runs down the outside of your thigh).
13. You think, “I’m not a runner”
You’re literally running, are you not?
If you label yourself, you’re less likely to keep going, Shepphird says. Adopt a positive mantra instead, like:
- “Remember to breathe.”
- “Be bold.”
- “Keep moving forward.”
- in the immortal words of ultramarathon runner David Goggins, “Stay the f*ck hard.”
Say it to yourself every few paces so you develop a rhythm, Shepphird recommends.
One 2014 study found that positive self-talk may endurance performance. The researchers determined that cyclists who practiced self-talk cycled for a greater distance and said that it felt easier when compared to those who didn’t.
14. You drink too much water
Don’t worry, it’s our favorite cocktail too. But you *can* have too much of it.
If you overhydrate, you’ll feel bloated. But “if you don’t drink enough, you risk dehydration, which can lead to lightheadedness or illness during your run,” Miller says. “It is certainly a balance.”
So do you need to carry a water bottle with you? Generally, if you’re running a short distance on a cool day, you’re fine.
“You don’t have to take water with you necessarily, unless it’s a hot day over 80ºF,” Miller says. If you really want to get specific, weigh yourself before and after your run and drink 16 to 24 ounces for every pound you drop.
There’s a reason we “practice” exercise rather than just “do” it — we can’t all be Sha’Carri Richardson right from the starting pistol of our running careers.
It’s vital to pay attention to the smaller details like what you’re wearing, how you’re breathing, and the mental space around running. This will help you reap maximum rewards from running and reduce your risk of injury.
Soon you’ll be… well, running the show.