Running long distances doesn’t have to come with a side of shin splints. Ward off running injuries with these simple ideas.
After running a tough four-mile race in hilly Central Park, I was basking in the glory of setting a personal best when I noticed a sharp pain in my calf. It was the moment all runners dread—when you realize that a nagging soreness is actually a full-blown injury that could spell months of recovery. For me, it meant eight weeks of limping and gazing longingly at my running shoes.
On the upside, I learned a lot during my rehabilitation. There are only a certain number of steps that runners can take after they’re already injured—and rest will always be the primary component of treatment. It’s what we do when we’re healthy that truly makes the difference. If you follow these guidelines, you can prevent little pains from becoming big problems.
The single most effective way to prevent injury is to think before you train. Most running injuries are due to overuse—doing too much, too soon, too fast. Plan your training so that you can track your mileage and ensure that you are building your base cautiously. Having a weekly plan will help you avoid the overtraining that often leads to injury. Michael Conlon, running coach and owner of Finish Line Physical Therapy, suggests the following rules of thumb: never increase your total volume of running by more than 10 to 15 percent each week, or your weekly long run by more than two miles.
Always remember to incorporate time off into your schedule. Rest days are crucial because they help you repair the muscles you break down while running. Doing difficult runs back-to back won’t allow your body proper time to recover. Overall, Conlon recommends, “Stay positive and keep focused by planning realistic, achievable goals.”
Perfect Your Form
“Chronic pain and injuries are often caused and aggravated by bad habits in our posture and gait,” says physical therapist Rik Misiura, owner of Central Park & Bryant Park Physical Therapy. Many runners trod along unaware of the imbalances in their form, and this can lead to problems down the line.
In my case, a videotaped analysis of my gait revealed that I was favoring my right side when I ran—likely the cause of the calf injury. I also discovered that I drag my legs forward rather lifting them up, and I land on my feet heel-to-toe, which can also cause calf and knee problems. Becoming aware of my stride’s imperfections enabled me to improve these habits. Misiura believes that it takes the average person only one month of practice to make slight modifications in their form, which can lead to a lifetime free of chronic injury.
Having your run analyzed can be pricy: $100 to $300 for the first session, and $65 to $150 for follow-up evaluations. However, your health insurance may cover some of this cost. Think it of this way—spending money on your form while you’re healthy may prevent you from shelling out even bigger bucks on injury-related medical bills.
Build Muscle from Top to Toes
It’s a great idea to complement your runs with weight lifting, but you might be skipping over a crucial body part. A hot trend in running is foot strength. Some argue that ultra-padded running shoes can actually increase injury risk as they cause feet to become weak. Coach Eric Orton, trainer to the best-selling author of Born to Run, Chris McDougall, recommends this exercise to build foot strength. First, try to balance on one foot for two minutes. If that isn’t challenging, try balancing on your forefoot alone. Over time, the muscle memory, sensitivity and strength of the foot will activate other muscles up the leg. Physical therapist Misiura agrees. In my first session at his office, we spent 25 minutes “waking up” the muscles in my feet. This would allow me to be more aware of my footfall while I ran, and to prevent me from compensating for weaknesses in my foot. Both Orton and Misiura recommend brief and periodic stints of barefoot running.
Mix it Up
Most coaches agree that the average runner needs to supplement their running with cross training. Trying new activities can increase your fitness while giving your body a break from running—and you might just have some fun. Maryland-based running coach Christine Hinton explains, “Running trains a very specific set of muscles and hence leaves others weak.” She encourages runners to do anything that involves core development to balance the body. Yoga, Pilates and swimming are all great choices. Coach Conlon also believes in the benefits of low-impact exercises like biking. He says, “It is the best way to add volume to your training without the added stress of extra running days.”
Healthy muscles and bones need support from proper fueling. Cristina Rivera, RD, president of Nutrition In Motion, PC, says that the number one mistake runners make is not getting enough calories during and after workouts. Inadequate calorie consumption will lead to soreness and poor recovery, thus increasing your likelihood of injury.
Runners need to eat a balanced diet complete with carbohydrates, protein and fats. Rivera points out that women often resist eating carbohydrates, which are critical for proper performance. “Carbs are fuel,” she explains. “When your body doesn’t have enough fuel it starts to break down proteins and you lose muscle.”
Women also have a higher need for iron, B vitamins, calcium and vitamin D in their diets. Andrea Cherus, RD, co-author of Nutrient Timing for Peak Performance, explains that female runners can also be at greater risk for anemia due to monthly menstrual losses. A good way to ensure you get enough regardless of diet is to take a multi-vitamin.
Even So. . .
Of course, even with these precautions it’s still possible to get injured (think: twisting your ankle in a hidden pot hole), but building a healthy base will help reduce the severity of the injury and enable you bounce back faster.