Whether you’re out there to train for a race, to stay or get in shape, or just to enjoy the scenery, the surest way to ruin your regimen is to sustain an injury. And since it’s estimated that nearly 80 percent of runners are injured each year, you stand a good chance of winding up as one of the statistics.
Here then are a few tips on how to avoid running injuries:
1. Don’t overdo it. Most injuries are overuse injuries. The best way to avoid them is to start slowly and build slowly. If you are new to running, start with a mixture of running and walking, and try not to run two days in a row. Both new and experienced runners should not increase their mileage more than 10 percent a week. An experienced runner once told me that most of his injuries occurred on days when he felt good and ran more than he’d planned. The lesson: don’t overdo it and save it for another day instead.
2. Listen to your body. I don’t know how many times I’ve said it, but it certainly is worth saying again: “No pain, no gain” is a training philosophy that went out with disco. Don’t try to run through the pain. If something hurts, let it get better. Remember RICE (rest, ice, compression and elevation). Add over-the-counter anti-inflammatories if you are able to take them. Don’t forget that you’re out there to enjoy yourself; you’re not enjoying yourself if you’re in pain. If you are concerned about being too sedentary, consider cross training or substituting another form of exercising. However, if pain persists or worsens, if there is any sort of redness or deformity, or if you experience any sort of locking or instability, seek medical attention.
3. Wear the right shoes. Not all running shoes are made alike. The type of shoe you need varies depending upon your foot type and style of running. A sports store that specializes in athletic footwear can help you figure out what style might be best for you. Foot type is based upon the structure of your foot and the degree of pronation or supination. Pronation is the normal inward rolling of your foot in running as your foot strikes the ground and transitions into pushing off. Abnormal pronation can lead to injuries. At the extreme, excessive pronators may have flat feet or “fallen arches”. On the other hand, supinators usually have rigid, high-arched feet. Most runners can control these problems by carefully selecting the right shoe type or by seeing an expert that can analyze his/her running gait and make orthotic inserts specific to the runner’s foot structure. Many stores that specialize in running footwear will offer a specialized gait analysis to help you choose the right shoe. Of course, as your shoes begin to wear—usually every three months or after about 500 miles on the road—it’s time to replace them.
4. Add strength training to your day. Strength training helps to keep your body properly aligned while you are running. It is particularly important to strengthen the core and the hip muscles. When you strengthen the hips—the abductors, adductors, and gluteus maximus—you increase your leg stability all the way down to your ankles while also helping to prevent knee injuries. You don’t want to train for bulging muscles. You need just enough core, hip and lower-leg strength training to keep your pelvis and lower-extremity joints properly positioned. If you don’t have muscle balance, then you lose the symmetry, and that’s when you start having problems.
5. Stretch! Most runners tend to be tight in predictable areas—usually the hamstrings and calf muscles—and they get injured in and around those areas. Help prevent these types of injuries with gentle stretching. Timing is important. Most of us have been taught to stretch right before and right after we run. However, this may not be the best way to do it.
Do not do static stretches (holding an elongated muscle in a fixed position for 30 seconds or longer) before running, without warming up first. Stretching is best done after a warm-up period of 10 to 15 minutes and again at the end of your workout.
After a long or strenuous run, it may be best not to stretch right away. After a difficult run, there may be very small micro tears in the muscles. Stretching immediately can actually worsen these tears. It may be best to shower, eat and rehydrate, and then spend 15 minute stretching later in the day.
6. Pay attention to your form. Fixing your form is one of the simplest and most beneficial changes you can make to avoid injury. Bad form typically includes issues such as:
• Over-striding (your foot lands far in front of your body)
• Slouching or leaning from the waist
• Aggressive heel striking (often a result of over-striding)
• Running at a slow cadence (fewer than 170 steps per minute)
Running with poor form will often contribute to overuse injuries because inefficiencies in your technique can result in excessive wear and tear on your body. Over many weeks and months, and hundreds of thousands of foot strikes, those little problems add up and increase your risk of injury. Thankfully, improving your form requires no extra time investment.
Enjoy your run! By paying attention and running smart you will be able to maintain your exercise injury free.
Dr. Michael Gross, the founder and director of Active Orthopedic and Sports Medicine, is the section chief of sports medicine and the orthopedic director of the Center for Sports Medicine at Hackensack University Medical Center, as well as medical director of Active Center for Health and Wellness.
Common Running Injuries
• Runner’s knee pain near the kneecap (especially after sitting for extended periods with knees bent or while moving downhill)
• Iliotibial band syndrome pain on the outside of the knee (usually occurring in middle or end of a run)
• Shin splints pain (in front or inside of lower legs)
• Achilles tendinitis (begins as a mild ache in back of legs or above heels)
• Plantar Fasciitis (most acute when foot flattens during weight-bearing or when pushing off with the toes during walking or running)