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Injury Prevention Tips for Runners – How to Spend Less Time Nursing Pain

Injury Prevention for Runners

By Kate Zanoni, LPTA

If you’re an avid runner, chances are high that you’ve experienced an injury or two over the years. Running is a great sport, but it places a lot of stress on your joints. According to Runner’s World magazine, approximately 66 percent of runners admit to having sustained a running-related injury in the past year. The good news is you can take several steps to help prevent common maladies, whether you’re a roadrunner, treadmill connoisseur or trail racer. It doesn’t matter if you run for competition, simple cardio or just for fun. Anyone who spends any amount of time running will benefit from these tips.

Most runners have an injury threshold, whether it’s 6 miles, 11 miles, 40 miles or 100 miles per week, but varies greatly with each individual. Regardless, the key is to avoid doing too much, too quickly, too soon. Research has shown that incrementally increasing your mileage no more than 10 percent each week is the safest way to allow your muscles and joints to accommodate to increased stress without overdoing it. Your muscles and joints need ample recovery time to adapt to training changes and increased intensity, including alterations in distance, terrain and speed. Using the 10 percent rule is a great tool as a general guideline. However, it’s important to note that even a 10 percent incremental increase may be too aggressive, especially if you’ve had injuries in the past. In these instances, a three to five percent incremental increase per week is more appropriate because it allows your body to acclimate to the additional distance without overtaxing yourself.

Listen to your body. Keep a running journal, logging your mileage, terrain and your body’s response to any changes in your routine. You will find patterns if you have discomfort. Maybe you notice your knees only ache when you run on harder surfaces such as pavement. Perhaps you only have pain when you run more than 15 miles per week. Any change in your routine can wreak havoc on your body and can injuries – overly aggressive introductions to hill training, trail running or intervals will place too much stress on your hip, knee and ankle joints. Altering your habits too abruptly will lead to problems down the road. Keeping a detailed training journal will help you stay on track and identify changes in your routine that may be leading to complications.

Knowing your limits is also vital. If you used to run 30 miles per week and got sidelines by an injury, do not suddenly return to running the same mileage without working back up to it. Attempting to return to your previous routine too quickly is not a successful strategy for making up for lost time. Adjust your training time and goals as necessary. Try training for an upcoming race over a period of 6 months instead of 3 months. Give your body the time it needs to play catch up for lost training time.

If you regularly experience pain during a run, have a physical therapist analyze your gait pattern. You may have an underlying issue with the way you’re pounding the pavement. For instance, if you tend to heel strike and take long strides, you increase the stress on your tibias (your larger lower leg bones). Shortening your stride by 10 percent reduces your risk for developing stress fractures by lowering the forces of your overall impact, thereby improving your overall efficiency.

A professional gait analysis can also help determine whether you’re wearing the correct shoes for your running pattern and foot shape. Getting fitted for running shoes and the appropriate amount of arch support helps provide an optimal foundation for your specific needs. There is no magic one-shoe-type-fits-all for runners. The objective is to find a shoe that works best for your foot structure, function and goals. Replacing your shoes at regular intervals will also help you avoid injuries. There is no steadfast timeline, but generally speaking, you should replace your shoes every 300-500 miles to avoid worn out treads and shoe breakdown. If you run more than 20 miles per week, alternate shoes every other day to prolong the life of your sneakers while keeping your feet happily supported.

If you don’t run through pain in the first place, chances are high you won’t have to nip a nagging injury in the bud down the road. The majority of running injuries do not appear suddenly overnight. All too often, we ignore signals of an impending problem by disregarding aches, unrelenting soreness and persistent discomfort. Do not dismiss a nagging issue. Take action at the first sign of an injury, pay attention to patterns in your training regimen that may be contributing to your pain and address it by getting to the root cause.

When you experience pain during or after a run, take a few days off to rest, especially if your pain worsens during or after running or causes you to alter your gait pattern. Instead of running, substitute lower intensity walking, water aerobics or recumbent cycling. Upon return to running, cut your distance in half. If you can successfully complete half your regular training run, reward yourself the following day with another day of light, low-intensity cardio. Ease yourself back into your running program only if you remain pain-free. If you are still experiencing discomfort, contact a physical therapist to diagnose your injury and help you safely return to your running routine by addressing the source of your pain, tackling any musculoskeletal imbalances and concentrating on rehabilitation.

With all the impact and torque involved in running, it’s vital to properly align your body by building your overall strength. Running involves more than just strong calves and quads. Runners also need strong abdominals, gluteals and hips. Incorporate at least two days of cross training per week with exercises such as planks, bridges, donkey kicks and clamshells to target core and hip stability. Improving muscle strength and stability with create more symmetry and support, keeping your pelvis and legs better aligned for fluid running.

After contracting your muscles during training, don’t forget to stretch thoroughly after every run. When stretching, target your glutes, hamstrings, quads and calves (as shown in the pictures below) to reduce post-run muscle soreness. Hold each stretch for 20-30 seconds and perform each stretch for 3 repetitions.

Single knee-to-chest stretch (Target muscle group: glutes)

Injury prevention for runners

Long sitting stretch (Target muscle group: hamstrings)

Injury prevention for runners

Standing quad stretch (Target muscle group: quadriceps)

Injury prevention for runners

Standing calf stretch 1 (Target muscle group: gastrocnemius – large calf muscle)

Injury prevention for runners

Standing calf stretch 2 (Target muscle group: soleus – smaller calf muscle)

Injury prevention for runners

Finally, stay hydrated and drink plenty of fluids throughout each day. Replenishing your electrolytes after a run will also help reduce post-run muscle cramping. Instead of sugar-laden sports drinks that are full of empty calories, try water with electrolytes such as Smart Water. If you prefer something with a little flavor, try infusing fresh fruit into your water to provide natural nutrients without additives and artificial coloring.

If you have further questions or concerns about running or a possible injury, contact Loudoun Sports Therapy Center at 703-450-4300. We’ll help you get back on the road, trail or treadmill safely and effectively. Happy running!