If you’re a runner, chances are eventually something is going to hurt more than it should.
Running is a great exercise for your health. It helps build strong bones and muscles, improves cardiovascular fitness and helps you maintain a healthy weight. But, like any physical activity, whether you’re an outdoor runner or a treadmill fan, it can sometimes lead to injury.
The biggest culprit of runner injuries? Overuse, which accounts for 50-75% of all running injuries, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information. With an estimated 40 million runners in the United States, that’s a lot of pain.
“Too much, too soon,” said Dr. Chris Felton of Novant Health Ballantyne Family & Sports Medicine. “We often have a notion that we want to get healthy, and maybe the doctor is telling me I need to get healthy. People go from doing nothing to running seven days a week. That’s just too much right away.”
As with any exercise routine, it is important to begin slowly and gradually increase the time and distance you run. Patience becomes just as important as a reliable set of running shoes.
Common running injuries
Felton said the most common injuries he sees are stress reaction injuries, such as shin splints. He also sees runners with those types of injuries in their hips and feet. It’s not yet to the point where the runner has a stress fracture (a broken bone), but it’s headed in that direction.
Another widespread issue among runners is an overuse tendon injury, Felton said. That can range from the Achilles tendon to gluteus medius (it’s in your hip) to the peroneals in your ankle. Other runners often deal with IT band syndrome (lateral knee pain) and plantar fasciitis, an inflammation of the thick band of tissue connecting your heel to your toes.
Recognizing when you’re running too much
Pay attention to the volume of running you’re doing, Felton said. If you can run a mile, but in the second mile you’re having pain, then that’s too much distance. Keep your running in a mileage range that doesn’t hurt you.
Find the orthopedic care you need
“Start with 5 to 10 minutes of a good, full-body warmup, whether it is calisthenics, or running or jogging in place,” Felton said. “And, certainly afterward, take another 5 to 10 minutes after your run for a cool-down stretch. You're going to get more out of your stretch after your runs than before.”
Fuel the runner
Nutrition is key to maintaining yourself as a runner, and often is overlooked by beginners. Realize that you’re going to be burning more calories as you develop as a runner. Be mindful to replace those calories with foods that boost your energy and add nutrients. Three bags of potato chips can match the calories you may burn on a run, but that’s not good for your body. Some foods that beginning runners should include in their daily plans are bananas, oats, peanut butter, broccoli, dark chocolate, plain yogurt, potatoes and whole-grain pasta.
“If your body doesn't have the energy that it needs to go that extra mile or two, that can lead to injury,” Felton said. “They have to be healthy calories, to give your body what it needs.”
Staying hydrated is vital for runners, too. Adequate hydration helps prevent muscle cramps and post-run muscle soreness. As a general guideline, drink about 16 fluid ounces of water 2 hours before you run, about 5-10 ounces every 15-20 minutes while you’re running, and another 16-24 ounces afterward.
When to see a doctor
If you’ve tried rest, a few doses of anti-inflammatory medication and dialed back your volume of running and the pain persists, it’s time to consult a doctor. Use a timeframe of two to three weeks, Felton said. If you can’t take that next step in training, or pick up where you left off, a physical problem likely needs attention.
“I'm always a proponent of `come in sooner,’ Felton said. “I’d rather tell you that you need an extra day or two off rather than `You've been pushing through this for two months,’ because now we're talking about a stress fracture or something. That’s just going to keep you out longer.”