Is running the most injury prone sport?

Updated: Apr 27

Given I am the Perpetually Injured Runner I can surely be forgiven for answering the above question with a definitive ‘yes!’ It certainly feels like it. I suppose I would say so, but that’s not based on robust research. In a guest appearance on the Runner’s World podcast, ultra-runner Damian Hall said he’d read that the only sport that had more injury-prone participants was basketball. The hard floors, the sharp turns and the close contact with other players does seem lend itself to that theory. But I wondered if it was true.

I was foolish enough to think that a quick google would give me the solution. It did and it didn’t. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I got lots of conflicting answers. Many articles I came across referred to professional sports only, or just team sports. Some were influenced by the location of the author, for example rugby featured often in the UK, whilst in American articles rugby was replaced with American football. Another piece cited downhill skiing and snowboarding as the sport most likely to cause injury, whereas some also mentioned equestrianism.

All that does makes sense. Activities which are contact sports that might take place on a hard surface, or where you might use something to move at high speed (a horse, skies), the chances of an accident must surely increase. But that’s different, we’re now talking about accidents. They do result in injury, but just popping on your trainers and going for a plod rarely results in similar, traumatic accidents.

Of course, there are exceptions one of which is cheese rolling. Essentially, a very steep downhill running race, the most famous annual cheese rolling event takes place at Cooper’s Hill near Gloucester, in the Cotswolds. The hill itself is so steep it’s actually concave. I’ve seen the hill and I can confirm it’s ludicrously steep. Every year at least one, and usually several, participants are hospitalised with their injuries. Technically it is a running event but it’s fair to say that most of the cheese chasers are not your typical amateur runners – us regular runners would never take such risks in case of an injury that scuppers our running habit! This video shows how utterly ridiculous, but clearly enjoyable, it all is.

Putting this slightly silly exception aside, running generally avoids risky contact, high-speed situations, and even the twisty-turny nature of many team sports, suggesting it shouldn’t be an injury-prone activity. My quick google search didn’t provide any data to suggest that it was a particularly risky sport. However, I can’t get away from the fact that although I know hundreds of runners, I can count on one hand the number that never seem to get injured.

The truth is the very nature of running being so simple, so natural, just going for a run is also it’s downfall. The fast majority of running injuries are overuse injuries. Very simply, that’s an injury from doing the same thing too much or too often. Running is repetitive. Some might say beautifully so, but it’s easy to do too much and most of us do. Overuse injuries are almost certainly the reason I’m the Perpetually Injured Runner. There is no silver bullet to cure them or even avoid them. The reason we know this is because those gifted handful who don’t seem to suffer overuse injuries also don’t have the answers. There is no common thread that binds them together – they are, for want of a better phrase, just lucky buggers.

In the quest for a reliable statistic based on real-life data I did come across a Runner’s World article from April 2021 that stated, ‘half of non-professional runners get injured’. This was based on new research of 200 runners by Jonatan Jungmalm, Ph.D. from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. The research also said that runners who’d had a previous injury were twice as likely to sustain another one. This does support my anecdotal evidence that some people seem so much more prone to repeat injury than others. Jungmalm also said that, “For runners, I think the takeaway from this is the awareness of how common injuries can be”. He added, “Recreational runners will, on average, experience at least one injury in about 225 hours of running”. For me that’s about four to five months of (non-injured) running, which is pretty much the longest I am ever injury-free. I think my problem is not only do I get injured every few months, but it also usually takes me another few months (even years) to overcome that injury. When I do, I love being able to run again and before long, I get another injury. Hence, I’m perpetually injured.

There are certainly ways to reduce your susceptibility to injury. I talked in my last blog about the benefits of proper strength training, which is one of them. As a coach, when I come across an injured runner the reason is almost always over training, either in volume or intensity. And the injured athlete usually doesn’t need me to tell them it’s self-inflicted.

There will be plenty of future musings about ways to avoid injury in future blogs, but for now you and me both are just going to have to accept that limited research on 200 people and the anecdotal experience of hundreds, arguably thousands, says that most runners will get injured, and many more than once.

So, the injury treadmill keeps on going. I’m still working through my hip/TFL/glute problem. I’ve finished the shockwave therapy and still doing heavily weighted squats in the gym. I’m running a little further and a little faster, staying almost pain free. I’m still crossing my fingers and feeling positive. In the meantime, I’ve started experiencing a tweak in my right heel/instep the morning after a run. I’m just hoping, praying it’s not another bout of the dreaded plantar fasciitis. By my next blog, we’ll know for sure…. Eek!