Break the running rules

Here’s the truth behind the fiction fueling your runs.

You know how the saying goes: Rules are meant to be broken. So when it comes to the tenets that many runners live, train and die by — well, consider this permission to become downright lawless. According to the research, many of the most commonly believed rules in running are supported by not so much as a shred of scientific fact. So we turned to Wendy Rhodes, a physical therapist in New York City who specializes in runners and injury prevention, to tell it to us straight.

"It’s important to keep in mind that a lot of these ideas are meant to be very basic guidelines for a novice runner," explains Rhodes. "But running is a very individual thing, and we can’t group all runners into one demographic." Had enough of the run around? Learn the facts behind the fiction.

The Myth:Increase your mileage by no more than 10 percent a week to prevent injury.

The Truth:According to a study from researchers at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, the injury rate was exactly the same for runners who increased by 10 percent as those who followed a standard training program, upping their mileage by about 30 percent. Rhodes’ reasoning? With so many factors involved, isolating the amount of mileage only accounts for a small fraction of the picture. "There are many more extrinsic and intrinsic variables of running injuries than just training volume," says Rhodes. "According to the research, history of previous injury is actually the biggest predictor of incurring a running related injury." For Rhodes, running history factors heavily into her prescription for clients. "If you’re a beginner I will enforce more of the 10 percent rule, because you want to start off slower. For advanced, well trained athletes, I’ll encourage whatever the goal may be — increasing speed or distance—which won’t necessarily adhere to the 10 percent rule."

The Myth: Stay on soft, cushy surfaces to avoid injury.

The Truth: Believe it or not, there is no scientific evidence to back up this widely believed theory. The reasoning behind it, however, stems from one of Newton’s laws of energy: If you apply a force to something, it will apply an equal and opposite force back. So while logically it makes sense — a soft track has the ability to absorb energy, while a hard piece of concrete shoots it directly back up — there is no science proving that the extra force causes harm. "The only reason I would encourage someone to run on a soft surface is if they’re having a shock absorbing problem or recovering from an injury, like shin splints," says Rhodes. "In general I encourage people to train on whatever surface they’re actually going to run on."

The Myth: Always stretch before a run to minimize the possibility of injury.

The Truth: Not necessarily. A recent study conducted by Dr. Daniel Pereles, in Potomac, MD, found that stretching prior to running neither prevented nor induced injury. Instead, the main incidence of injury came when people changed their normal stretching routine; when the non-stretchers started limbering up pre-run or the stretch-inclined skipped their usual warm-up. Rhodes, whose general prescription calls for a dynamic warm-up before, followed by static stretching afterwards, agrees. "Everybody is individual in what they need or don’t need," she says, "stretching is important, and it’s shown that you need to stretch." But when it comes to the when and where: "if it ain’t broke we’re not going to try to fix it."

Looking for more advice about limbering up? Read Stretching Secrets.