Julie Sparrow talking on injury prevention at Fitstuff Guildford

5 ways to prevent running injuries: Expert tips from an Olympian Physiotherapist

Last month, Fitstuff had the privilege of hosting Julie Sparrow for a talk on injury prevention. As a physiotherapist who has worked with teams at Commonwealth Games and Olympics, and a Senior Lecturer in Physiotherapy at Teesside University, Julie had a wealth of knowledge to share.

Injuries aren’t just painful; they’re incredibly frustrating when they stop you doing the activities you love or sideline your training for a race. The most common runner's injuries include runner's knee, IT band syndrome, shin splints, plantar fasciitis, and achilles tendinitis, and while they each have their distinct challenges, there are some common underlying causes that can be avoided with Julie’s top tips for injury prevention.

1. Diversify Your Running Routes

We often find comfort in familiar routes, and many of us opt for the same local loop that can be run on autopilot. But repetition breeds risk, Julie warned, “When you constantly run the same road routes, your legs repeat the same imbalances, and stress imbalances can accumulate over time, causing injury”

The fix? Mix it up! Try running your usual routes back to front to give yourself more variety. Or, instead of always repeating one route, try having a rotation of two or three. That change of scenery could prevent the onset of an injury.

A 3D gait analysis is a useful way to identify any stresses or imbalances you have that could lead to injury. It uses the latest technology to accurately assess your biomechanics, and you’ll come away with practical solutions on how to fix them.

2. Maintain a Varied Training Routine

“If all you do is run, you’ll set yourself up for some type of injury,” Julie advised. Neglecting strength and conditioning training is a common mistake for runners.

When you run, you get fatigued, which can impact your biomechanics. This influences your running form and risk of injury. Your body needs a solid foundation of strength, stability, and mobility to tackle any environment and adapt accordingly. If you’re lacking one of these key elements, you may develop an improper running pattern, eventually resulting in injury.

Julie suggested some exercises you can use to test your strength and mobility. If you struggle to perform these exercises cleanly, it can signal areas for improvement in your lower limb or core strength and stability relevant to your running stride.

Stand with one foot on the floor, and the other leg raised at a 90 degree angle, then raise up onto your tiptoes.


Single leg calf raise
Exercise 1: Single leg calf raise


Next, stand on one slightly bent leg and see if you can rock your other leg back and forth without wobbling. This tests the strength of your quads, which is important to stabilise the knee, and prevent the all too familiar knee pain from running.


Leg swing
Exercise 2: Leg swing


Finally, a single leg squat. Stand on one leg and bend the knee down as far as you can and back up.


Single leg squat
Exercise 3: Single leg squat


“A runner's mobility routine is a crucial step in preventing injuries,” Julie shared. “A well-rounded training regimen should also include long runs, intervals, threshold work, conditioning exercises, and easy stuff.”

If you need to improve your strength, Fitstuff has a new strength and conditioning class, tailored by experts for runners, starting on 30th November, email April for details al@fitstuffclinic.co.uk.

3. Avoid Comparison

Julie also warned against getting caught up in the Strava comparison trap.

Focusing on everyone else's training can tempt us into a cycle of competing with others, borrowing from their training plans, or speeding up easy runs to compete with their faster ones. Here lies the danger when you’re no longer training for yourself. Your focus shifts from how you feel, and your personal goals, to trying to measure up to others, which can cause us to over-train and risk injury.

Julie’s own solution? She avoids Strava all together, staying focused on her own training and goals.

4. Adapt Training for Your Age

“A big cause for injuries as we age? We neglect to think about how our bodies change.” says Julie.

Our later years might bring wisdom, but they also bring stiff joints, aches and pains, and the new balancing act of putting your socks on. Our muscles, joints, and bones undergo changes and it becomes crucial to recognise and accommodate these shifts. Especially as you reach your 60s, the decline in bone and muscle mass, amongst other things, add up. “Older runners thinking they’re still younger runners is a big reason for injury. Training plans need to adapt with you.”

You may need longer recovery periods and your definition of an easy or threshold run may change too. Acknowledging this and adapting your training accordingly can keep injuries at bay.

5. Listen to your body

Above all, Julie emphasised the importance of listening to your body over what technology tells you. This goes for recovery time and how hard you should train. “Try to go by time and effort,” she said, rather than hitting a certain pace or distance. Our bodies are wonderfully complex mechanisms that we should listen to more often.

The Injury Self-Checker

An awareness of your pain is crucial for preventing injuries, and will help you distinguish between the discomfort of training and the pain of an injury. Julie's scale is a tool to help you take the right action to fix it.

  • Zone of Awareness (pain scores 1-3):
    Mild discomfort like twinges or tweaks, which are short-lasting and disappear within 24 hours. While these sensations don't hinder your ability to continue training, you should note them in your training log as they can reveal any potential causes of the issue.

  • Zone of Action (4-7):
    Discomfort localised to the same area on two consecutive runs or continuous low-grade pain — it’s time to act. Don’t push through the pain, as it could lead to silent compensations in your running efficiency, altered movement patterns and further risk of injury. Consider taking a short break from running, engage in some cross training, and consult your registered sports therapist.

  • Zone of Misery (8 and above):
    Pain interferes with daily activities and running becomes impossible. At this point, a lengthy layoff may be needed, Julie explained, “If you’ve been running on a niggle for 3 months to create an injury, it’ll take you 3 months to get back to healthy.”

By listening to your body’s early warning signs, and not trying to push through the pain, you can avoid reaching the ‘zone of misery’ all together.

Julie’s parting advice: “It’s all about me” she said, “My training, my routes, my recovery, not what anyone else is doing.”