Is the Running Injury Epidemic Overblown?

It’s a widely accepted fact that we’re in the midst of a massive running injury epidemic. Who or what is to blame for this epidemic is a matter of vigorous debate, but there’s no denying that studies of running injuries produce some alarming numbers about how many runners get hurt, with the reported prevalence of injuries as high as 92.4 per cent.

I’ve generally accepted this conventional view without questioning it. But in a recent e-mail discussion about the underlying causes of running injuries, my friend and colleague Amby Burfoot offered an alternative perspective that made me rethink whether running really is the most dangerous thing I do every day.

It’s clear that the injury numbers you come up with depend on how you define “injury.” If you have a minor blister, does that count? An ache in your foot that you’re vaguely aware of for a few days but which then disappears with no further consequences? While these things are inconvenient, no one really considers them to be as bad as, say, a stress fracture.

Amby suggested considering the following scenario: If you sign up for a marathon six to eight months in the future, what are the chances you’ll make it through the training program intact, make it to the start line, and finish the race?

In theory, you’d expect to see some pretty gruesome numbers. Marathon training can be far harder on the body than shorter distances, and that’s especially true if you’re a first-time marathoner or a competitive runner seeking a personal record. Given the typical injury numbers found in studies, it would seem like a victory if more than a few dozen people made it to the start of big-city marathons.

Of course, that’s not what actually happens. A few marathons publish statistics on the fate of everyone who enters. For example, here’s the data from this year’s Boston Marathon in America, broken down by age group:

Entry statistics from Boston Marathon.













The attrition is pretty low. Of the 30,741 runners who entered, 26,639 made it to the finish line, so just 13.3 per cent had something happen in the seven months between the opening of registration and the finish of the race. Men and women were very similar; there’s a slight increase in attrition with increasing age (though the oldest age groups don’t have enough entries to reveal patterns: just three in F75-79, 10 in M80+, and two in F80+).

Anyway, this doesn’t prove that runners don’t get injured, or suggests that minor injuries that cause you to miss a few days of running somehow don’t count as “real” injuries.

But I think Amby’s insight makes an interesting counterpoint to the prevailing idea that running is up there with deep-sea fishing and rodeo clowning as a risky pastime. If you sign up for a marathon scheduled for six months from now, you’ll almost certainly encounter some bumps along the way—but you’ve still got an excellent chance of making it to the finish line in one piece.

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