Listening to Your Body to Avoid Overuse Injuries

"Not listening to their bodies" is the biggest mistake recreational runners make when they start a running program, says Dr Jim Bovard, a North Vancouver sports medicine physician. Novice runners are often very goal-oriented and enthusiastic and may persist with a program at the expense of developing overuse injuries, he cautions. Bovard, who sees athletes in his practice ranging from novices to Ironmen, says he finds recreational runners "a unique group who seem to have more of an emotional attachment" to their running programs than more experienced athletes.

Bovard says it's important to remember that regardless of the high quality of a running program such as the InTraining program, "every time someone starts running, they are an experiment of one. So what works in general in a program will not apply to 100% of the people using it." Compounding this is the fact that runners "may not understand or recognize body messages because this is all new to them – they are not sure what to listen to." Leaders of running clinics therefore need to reinforce the importance of this body awareness with their participants, he says.

Runners need to debunk the "no pain, no gain" myth, says Bovard. Teri-Lynn Fraser, a physiotherapist at UBC's Allan McGavin Sports Medicine Centre, who also assists in leading InTraining clinics, agrees: "people don't recognize that having pain is not supposed to happen. A lot of people at the InTraining clinics think that having pain is ok." Most of the recreational runners that Bovard sees are between 25 and 45 and their running goals are "a big deal for them." However, if injuries prevent someone from reaching their goal, for instance, running in the Sun Run, it is important to put that in perspective. "I tell them: you know what? There are tons of 10K races. You have to remember why you are doing this program, you shouldn't be doing this program just to run the event. You should be doing this program as part of a healthy change in your lifestyle so that you can continue running long after the event is over."

New runners also need to understand the physiological changes that their bodies experience during a training program, says Bovard. "They start at point A where they haven't done any running and they want to get to point B where they run a 10K: obviously their bodies have to go through some changes to accomplish that." The process of becoming fitter actually occurs during the recovery phase between workouts as the body adapts to changes it undergoes during workouts. "If we don't give our bodies enough of a recovery phase, that's when we tend to get injured," he says. "Rest is as important or more important than working out to get fitter," stresses Bovard. People think that if they take time off they are going to lose fitness, but they will get fitter faster by not working out if their body needs rest."

So how do runners know when they are overtraining?

Moodiness, sleeping problems and when workouts go badly, are all signs, says Bovard. The stress of other demands in the person's life may also spill over into running performance. Many factors can help prevent overuse injuries. The following are tips from Bovard and Fraser:

  • Knowing what to listen for – be in tune with your body.
  • Footwear – Running shoe construction is becoming increasingly technical so get properly fitted before you start a program. For example, if you tend to pronate your ankle, that should be accommodated with the right shoe, says Fraser. Running shoes should probably be changed after about 300 miles but that "is a very arbitrary" estimate says Bovard. One way to assess the effectiveness of your running shoes is to buy a second pair when you find a shoe that you like and keep them in the closet, says Bovard. Try the second pair out two months later. If they feel significantly better than the first pair, switch shoes.
  • Surface terrain – be aware that changing from training on soft surfaces to pavement is a risk factor for injury, says Bovard. Progress to pavement with a short run the first time. Similarly, hill training should be approached gradually, says Fraser.
  • Hydration – For a 10K run, drinking beforehand and afterwards is probably adequate for most runners, says Bovard. He feels that hydration is overemphasized, noting recent cases of too much fluid in athletes running in extreme events.
  • Stretching is very useful after a run, if carried out properly – one 60 second stretch for each muscle group. Recent research has clearly demonstrated that stretching before exercise does not prevent injury, says Bovard.
  • Nutrition – "eating should be consistent with training." Runners will not necessarily lose weight, but their body composition will likely change. In fact, runners may initially gain weight as they increase their muscle bulk, but "one pound of muscle doesn't take up a lot of space on the body," says Bovard. Rather than reading the scale, ask yourself "how do my clothes fit?"
  • Sleep and rest – Runners will need extra sleep to cope with their increased exercise demands or they may risk injury, says Bovard.


Heather Kent is a Vancouver freelance medical writer. She is a regular contributor to the Canadian Medical Association Journal and numerous other North American health and medical publications.

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