Running has become one of the most common forms of physical activity in the world. With its ease of access and low barrier of entry; it can be a community building activity, a personal challenge and most importantly an incredible workout.
It's a sport that most everyone can participate in; all you need is a good pair of shoes (and arguments can be made there) and a little motivation. That being said, running can be extremely hard on your body, especially when you are just starting. We are finding that injuries among runners are very common. For beginners, running form and endurance play a large role in injury rates. From shin splints to muscle strains, no one is immune to getting hurt.
First, what are the most common running injuries?
NOW, how do we avoid and prevent them from happening?!?!
Don’t do too much, too fast
When runners are just starting and begin to make progress, they tend to push their limits. Truly, this is one area where the tortoise will outlast the hare. Although this is a great way to challenge yourself, it is important to understand your body has a threshold, and when that threshold is exceeded, the result is injury. Your mileage should be tracked on both a daily and weekly basis. If you have never done much long-distance running, then your weekly mileage should begin quite low, in the realm of 1-2 miles per day, or about 5-10 miles per week. And for some, this may even be too much, which is perfectly fine! Everyone has a different starting point. This can also mean, for those of you living in mountainous places like Denver, starting off running on flatter terrain with minimal incline and slowly over time adding in some incline. It is important that as you improve you increase your mileage gradually. A consensus among the running community is the rule of 10%. Do not increase your mileage by any more than 10% on a week to week basis. For many runners and new runners specifically, 10% may even be too much of a jump. This is why when preparing for a distance race, whether it is a 10k, half marathon or a marathon it is recommended you start as early as possible. Could you train and complete a half marathon in 6-8 weeks? Maybe, but the toll it could take on your body and the injury risk you are exposing yourself to are likely not worth it. A recent study showed that runners who only increased their mileage by 3% a week had a much higher rate of success in their upcoming races than runners who ramped up their mileage quicker.
So how do you know where to start? As a new runner, start with short runs and accumulate miles over the week. Above, we mentioned potential mileage to start at. It is important to understand how far you have been running, so I recommend using an app on your phone such as “Strava” to help track each run. Strava will give you data like total time, movement time, pace, vertical feet gained, as well as give you awards for completing longer and/or faster runs. As you gradually increase your miles, you will have to begin to listen to your body. If you find that you are feeling fine after running 20 miles a week but when you increase it to 23 miles in a week you are having pains and discomfort, that’s your body telling you that you may have to dial back to 20 miles/week for a few more weeks before increasing again, and increasing more gradually next time.
Do not run through significant pain
As runners, we all understand some discomfort is a part of the sport. Your legs and feet will likely be sore after a long run; however, if you begin to notice significant pain or discomfort while running, consider taking a break. Your body could be warning you against a potential injury; such as a muscle strain, ligament sprain, or stress fracture. Taking breaks can be difficult to convince a runner to do, but it could save you from more severe injury. Aside from the odd rolled ankle, very few running injuries are acute and traumatic. Far more commonly runners ignore the pain and “push through it” when they begin to feel discomfort, causing more chronic pain conditions. These can also take a long time to resolve.
This can also result in a cumulative injury cycle. Which, simply put, means if you continue to stress an injury by running, you will continue to make it worse and it can become a much more significant issue. Sometimes all it takes is an extra day off when symptoms are minor to allow your body a little more time to recover. This is important because if you have an injury, it is very common for your body to adapt by altering your gait (running pattern) to avoid pain, which in-turn leads to more issues down the road (pun intended).
Changes in gait may lead you to be less efficient, develop bad habits or in a worst-case scenario cause an injury elsewhere in your body. Remember, everything is connected, so if you are running with a limp the biomechanical stresses will be placed on a different part of your body. Give your body a chance to recover and if you think that a potential injury is presenting itself, have a medical professional take a look at it. It is much more beneficial to have an injury taken care of with a couple of sessions of treatment rather than letting it persist and having to deal with it when it is much more serious, with an extended recovery time.
Running Cadence & Stride Length
The amateur runner may not put much thought into their running beyond putting one foot in front of the other, however, if you are finding yourself with consistent pain in your shins or recurring lower leg injuries the way you run is likely playing a role. New research has demonstrated that when you take a longer stride as you run, the ground reaction force on your legs will be increased. In large part, due to the overstride that commonly follows the increase in stride length. This increased force can lead to more injuries and micro traumas that can lead to chronic injuries and discomfort.
If you think that this may be affecting your ability to run pain-free, try taking some shorter runs and actively think about taking shorter steps while running. Your legs will have to move faster to maintain the same pace as before, but you might find that you are injured less often. If you continue to experience issues, then having a gait specialist watch and correct your running form should be your next step.
Warming up and Flexibility
As with any other sport, an appropriate warm up is essential. Historically, runners have utilized static stretching before runs to help negate injury risk. However this isn’t the best method for getting yourself primed for movement. A great way to warm up your muscles before a run is to perform dynamic movements. This means warming up while moving rather than a traditional static stretch.
Some great dynamic exercises to perform before running are:
These are simple exercises that will get blood flow to the muscles as well as increase motor recruitment of the working muscles.
After your run, is when you may want to throw in some static stretches and foam rolling to help your muscles recover. You can use any of your favorite stretches but plan to spend at least 10-15 minutes stretching.
Foam rolling does not require you to spend extensive time per region. Some people get carried away, but you only need to roll out the same spot for 1-2 minutes and move to the next. This is a great tool to help target knots and trigger points in your muscles that may have developed from your work out. With extended runs (15+ miles), allow your body to cool down and recover before stretching. When you are running longer distances, your muscles will develop micro muscle tears which can be further injured if you stress the tissues (as with a stretch) immediately after the run. Due to this, give yourself a couple of hours and make sure to stretch before the end of the day.
There are plenty of things you can do prevent injuries and increase performance while training and these are just a starting point. Implement as many of these strategies into your routine as you can, and you will be running pain-free in no time!
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