Here’s How to Avoid Running Injuries

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Provided by Novant Health UVA Health System

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 percent to 75 percent 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.

Ann Baker

Ann Baker

“We see many patients with overuse injuries from running,” said Ann Baker, a physical therapist at Novant Health UVA Health System Haymarket Medical Center. “Since the pandemic, a lot of people are turning to running to stay fit while gyms are closed. I love that people are getting active in new ways, but with any new recreational activity, it’s important to take special measures to avoid injury.”

Begin Slowly

As with any exercise routine, it is important to begin slowly and gradually increase the time and distance you run.

Dominique Graham

“One of the biggest contributors to overuse injuries is doing too much, too soon and without proper recovery,” said Dominique Graham, DPT, CLT, a physical therapist at Novant Health UVA Health System Prince William Medical Center. “It’s easy to overexert yourself when you’re excited about a new activity to change up your exercise routine. Running requires patience and consistent training to keep yourself free of injury.”

Baker and Graham share insight on lowering your risk of injury and when to see a doctor if you are injured.

Common Running Injuries

Baker said many common injuries she sees are stress-reaction injuries, such as shin splints. She 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,” Baker said. “That can range from the Achilles tendon to gluteus medius (it’s in your hip) to the peroneals in your ankle.”

Runners can also 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,” Graham 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.

“Start with 5 to 10 minutes of a good, full-body warmup, whether it is calisthenics or jogging in place,” Graham said. “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 them.”

Make sure you have good footwear, too. Look for shoes that are supportive and comfortable. Graham recommends keeping your shoes fresh and considering a new pair every 350 to 400 miles.

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 it needs to go that extra mile or two, that can lead to injury,” Graham 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 two hours before you run, about 5 to 10 ounces every 15 to 20 minutes while you’re running, and another 16 to 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,” Baker said. “If you can’t take that next step in training — or pick up where you left off — a physical problem likely needs medical attention.”

“I’m always a proponent of seeing your doctor sooner,” Baker said. “I’d rather tell you that you need an extra day or two off rather than worsen the injury to the point of something like a stress fracture. That’s just going to keep you out longer.”

For more information about rehab and therapy services at Novant Health UVA Health System, please visit NovantHealthUVA.org/rehab.

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