Injury Prevention for Running
Updated: Apr 12, 2021
It’s January, the beginning of the new year and I’m sure you have made some fitness goals to kick off the new year. That’s great! Are you going to pick up running this year? Running can be a great source of exercise. In fact, running has become one of the most common forms of physical activity in today’s society, especially with society's current conditions and wanting to escape the closed quarters of the gym. It can be a community-building activity, a social event for some, a personal challenge, and most importantly a great workout. It is a sport that everyone can participate in; all you need is a good pair of shoes and a little motivation. It’s no taboo, running can be extremely hard on your body, especially when you are just starting. A recent study revealed that 66 percent of responders had suffered a fitness-related injury in the year prior. Injuries range from shin splints or knee pain to stress fractures in the feet. So let’s get this show on the road, read on and learn some great tips to decrease your chances of injuring yourself and continuing your running.
Be the Tortoise, not the Hare.
It’s easy to get injured; anyone can do it. Just run too much. When runners are just starting and begin to make progress, they tend to push their limits. Runners begin to gain the confidence of running daily and looking for the “runner’s high” everyone talks about. Although this is a great way to challenge yourself, it is important that you understand your body has a threshold that when exceeded results in 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. It is important that as you improve your mileage gradually. A general consensus among the running community is the rule of 10%. Do not increase your mileage by 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 so it’s always good to start with a lower percentage and see how your body responds to the change. 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. This is the reasoning behind getting your running training started early when preparing for an upcoming race.
We have to avoid the “terrible toos” (too much, too soon, and too fast) when we begin our training. So how do you know where to start? As a new runner, start small and slowly accumulate mileage over a week span. It is important to understand how far you have been running, so I recommend using an app on your phone or fitness watch to help track each run. As you gradually increase your miles, you will have to begin to listen to your body. If you find your body feeling good while running 15 miles in a week, but you tend to feel discomfort when you increase your distance to 18 miles; you may have to dial back the mileage until your body accommodates the new mileage.
Lastly, another important tip would be to run on a level surface. It is great and all to run on the left side of the road, but run after run we tend to have a problem with how our feet are striking the ground. We start to see a leg length deficiency and that starts to create problems in her lower extremities, hips, or low back. Try to find a local track, bike path, or dirt trail to see if you can run on more level ground. This will do two things, it will help keep you safe so we are not running on the side of the road, as well as, keeping you running on more level ground saving you from an injury that could occur. As much as we want to promote getting outside and running, if your only option is a treadmill then we can use that to help promote good running technique.
Do not run through significant pain
As runners, we all understand some discomfort is a part of the sport. You may have the occasional leg and foot soreness after the long run; however, if you begin to notice significant pain or discomfort while running or afterward consider taking a break. Taking a break from running is one of the hardest things to convince a runner of doing, but it could save you from more severe injury. In this case, we will tend to cross-train and incorporate biking or water aerobics to keep you training. Aside from the odd rolled ankle, very few running injuries are acute, meaning that most injuries are built up over time when a runner tends to “tough it out” through the pain.
This can result in a cumulative overuse injury cycle. That 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 taking even one day off from pounding the pavement will help heal and reduce injury risk to the body. This is important because if you have an injury, it is very common for your body to adapt by altering your gait or movement pattern while running.
This may lead you to be less efficient, develop bad habits, or in a worst-case scenario cause an injury elsewhere in your body. Can anyone say hello to low back pain? 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 such as that low back or hip.
Give your body a chance to recover and if you think that an injury is nagging have a medical professional look at it. It is 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 a more serious injury, rest tends to be prescribed and for a longer duration.
Cadence (Stride Length)
A new 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 may be playing a role. New research has demonstrated that runners who shorten their stride by 10 percent could reduce the risk of tibial stress fractures (shin splints) by three to six percent. Research has also shown that when you take a longer stride as you run, the ground reaction force on your legs will be increased, which can lead to more injuries and micro traumas that can lead to chronic injuries and discomfort. With a shortened stride, you’ll land “softer” with each footfall, and that in turn lowers your impact forces to the ground.
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. This will require your legs to move faster to keep up with your wanted pace, but this may be the trick to reducing annoying lower leg injuries. It will take some time for your brain to comprehend the change and make it second nature for you, but over time the new running gait will be formed.
Warming up and Exercising
As with any other sport, it is essential that you warm up appropriately. A great way to warm up your muscles before a run is to perform a dynamic warm-up. Dynamic warm-ups are a thing of beauty and involve movement rather than static stretching. The movement is just significantly reduced activation of muscles during the moves. It is a great way to warm up your muscles and loosen up any tension you may have in the body.
Some great dynamic exercises to perform before running are:
Body Weight Squats
High Knee walking
High Knee jogging
These exercises do not need to build muscle or strength. These are meant to wake up your muscles and get some blood moving through them.
After your run, it will be important to perform some stretching and foam rolling to help your muscles recover. You can use any of your favorite stretches but plan to spend at least 15-20 minutes stretching. Some research has shown that when related to a very long run, typically over 15 miles, it is good to allow the body to cool down and recover before you get into your stretching routine. During those long runs, our muscles tend to create micro-tears, and stretching those out immediately after the run may create some injuries. So just plan on doing your stretching routine before the end of the day in that case.
Foam rolling does not require you to spend a significant amount of time per region. Don’t get out of hand and roll an area for too long, 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, trigger points, or just strictly tightness in your muscles that may have developed from your work out.
On top of stretching and warming up, we need to start implementing strength training. I know, every runner tells us they don’t want to bulk up and get too heavy, but recent research has shown a correlation between increased muscle mass and decreased injury rates while running. Strengthening the hips is optimal for effective rehabilitation because when you strengthen the hip musculature, you increase the stability and support of your legs all the way down to the ankle. You need a great exercise plan incorporating core, hip, and lower leg strength to keep your pelvis and lower-extremity joints properly aligned while training.
Lastly, before we go cross-training becomes a big help in your running training. We implement it into our patient care and training with every runner. Cross-training offers a great alternative to running because we are still getting our aerobic training, but with less forces and stresses on the body. Like we touched on earlier in the blog, we can implement swimming, cycling, elliptical training, or even rowing to get your heart rate up and the body moving. Depending on what your injury maybe if we have moved you to non-running training, for now, we have to be particular about which exercise we have you do in order to not reaggravate an injury. Cross-training is extremely important in your training program and it is highly recommended to be done at least once a week to give your body a break from running, but still get in your aerobic training.
These are just a few of the top action plan changes you can implement to start your running this year. It will help keep you pain-free and running up the miles. As always, we would be happy to help if you have any questions about running and injury prevention.
Need help with creating a dynamic warm-up? Or cool down and stretch routine? We would love to help. We often offer specific exercise and stretch routines for our patients. Feel an injury coming on? Let's get it nipped in the bud before it becomes a serious issue and stops your running in its tracks.