Running is one of the simplest and most effective forms of cardiovascular exercise. "Running is great — it gets your heart working, it engages the multiple muscle groups. It’s a very complete exercise,” said Dr. Richard Winder, MD, an orthopedic sports medicine physician at Southern Hills Hospital and Medical Center. While the benefits of running are innumerable —cardiovascular health, mental clarity and improved lung capacity, to name a few — there can be a risk for injuries, from mild to severe. For many runners, muscle strains, shin splints and other overuse injuries might be the norm, but they also can be prevented.
How to prevent injury
There are habits and practices runners can adopt to help avoid injury.
- Ease into every run: Always take time to warm up. Begin with a brisk walk or slow jog, then gradually pick up speed. Once your heart rate is up and you’ve started to break a sweat, then you can go full force into your run. Also, be sure to cool down and stretch once you’re done.
- Take your time while training; don’t increase your mileage by more than 10 percent each week. This will help prevent overuse injuries by allowing your body to acclimate slowly to added distance.
- Do strength training: Increasing your overall strength will help your body support the muscles used while running, making you less inclined to be injured.
- Improve your form: While running, be sure to keep your core upright and engaged, your posture aligned and your strides even.
- Don’t over-train: Rushing to meet a running goal before your body is ready practically guarantees an overuse injury. Knowing your limits — whether you’re a hardcore marathoner or a beginner — will help keep injuries at bay.
- Listen to your body: Pain is your body’s way of telling you something isn’t right. Listening to those messages is essential. It is better to take a break, even for weeks, than to run through pain, as that can prolong your injury.
Types of running injuries
Runner’s knee refers to a variety of conditions that cause pain in and around the kneecap, either due to overuse or injury. This typically is caused by inflammation of or damage to the knee cartilage. While overuse injuries are common for runners, traumatic injuries can occur, too. “I see a lot of trips and falls, especially for people who run with their dogs,” Winder said.
Stress fractures, or hairline fractures, are small cracks in the bone caused by overuse and repeated stress or trauma. While these fractures often can be treated with rest, in some cases, a brace, cast or even surgery might be necessary. “Stress fractures can occur anywhere, but for runners, they’re especially likely in the feet, ankles, tibia and sometimes the hips, too,” Winder said.
Shin splints describes a throbbing, aching pain in your shinbones caused by running or walking. Shin splints occur when muscles and tendons are overworked, which can lead to small tears in the tissue and inflammation of the muscle.
A pulled muscle occurs when a muscle is overstretched or overexerted, causing small tears in the tissue. This can cause pain, swelling and/or muscle weakness and can be the result either of overuse or injury.
Tendinitis is common among athletes and occurs when a tendon becomes inflamed or irritated because of overuse. Tendons are tissue that connect muscles to bones. Runners are most susceptible to Achilles tendinitis, in the Achilles tendon that attaches the calf bone to the heel, and patellar tendonitis, in the patella tendon that attaches the kneecap to the shinbone.
How to treat an injury
Many overuse injuries can be treated at home using the RICE method: rest, ice, compression and elevation. If pain persists or becomes chronic, it is important to see a doctor and discontinue running until you know what is causing the problem. Running while injured, even if the injury is mild, can compound damage and extend healing time.
Wear proper shoes
“Running shoes are so important,” Winder said. “They need to fit properly and offer good support. Also, shoes that are too new or too old can cause problems. They should be broken in and replaced regularly."
Replace running shoes every six months to a year or after 300 to 600 miles, depending on your activity level.
When shopping for running shoes, remember that everyone is different, so be sure to find a pair that satisfies your anatomical needs. If you have weak arches, find shoes with good arch support. If you have ankle problems, buy shoes with more padding to help absorb impact. Body type, gait and the terrain on which you run all affect the type of shoe you should be wearing.