This post was written by Esther Barker, PT/DPT, a staff physical therapist for JeffFIT . She sees patients at the at the Stephen Klein Wellness Center. She strives to bring Jefferson quality-care to the North Philadelphia community, closer to patients’ homes for convenience and improved outcomes. In her spare time, Esther enjoys running, teaching aerobics, and traveling.
Many times, novice exercisers will turn to running because it’s approachable, convenient, and let’s face it- it’s fun! That is- once you get past the burning legs, side cramps, and the awkwardness that passes with eventually finding your stride. Spring and fall, we often see an increase in injured runners come through our clinics. Blame it on the nicer weather, the scenic foliage, or the brightly colored runners along the streets that we see and soon want to become. Either way, many of us jump into this addictive sport without realizing that without the proper training, this high impact activity can lead to injury.
Did you know as many as 79 percent of runners will experience a running-related injury? I’ve seen many a runner- no matter their experience level deal with IT Band Syndrome (a repetitive use injury that can come along with poor training with high impact activity), patellofemoral (knee) pain, and shin splints- all of which are stubborn diagnoses. So you may be asking yourself, how do I avoid the pain and possibly a halt to my training? The truth is there is no perfect plan. But, there are a few strategies to minimize your risk for injury/re-injury.
Develop good habits: Pre and post-stretching!
Remember that not all stretches are created equal. Some research indicates that stretching has not been proven to reduce injury. However, injuries often come from muscles that are overused and tight. So, though we cannot prove that it does, clinically we see that addressing muscular tension- especially of the big players in a running gait like the hamstring, quadriceps, calves and gluteus maximus- will help get you back on track. “Warming up” is a term you will often hear from those in the running world. That doesn’t mean static stretching like your 2nd grade gym teacher taught you, but it does mean taking 5-10 minutes to increase blood flow to your major muscle groups. That could mean starting with a brisk walk or walking with high knees, hamstring curls, and forward kicks. Prepare your core and legs for what’s about to happen. They will thank you for it later.
Stretching post-run can be static. Spend 30-60 seconds stretching out both legs; this will reduce risk of the dreaded-by-some/revered-by-others DOMS- delayed onset muscles soreness. If you get yourself into a routine of carving out time for this- this healthy habit will save you from halts in your progress later.
Avoid training errors:
If you’ve never run a mile in your life, a common mistake is starting too fast. I know it’s exciting- you’re taking your health into your own hands! But realize you’re not going to get from your couch to 5 miles overnight, so how do you get there? Start with intervals. There’s no law against running 2 blocks and walking a block to build both your cardiovascular endurance and your muscles’ response to pounding the pavement. Once you get up to a mile- for you Philadelphians that’s roughly 10 center city blocks- then you can start to think about increasing your mileage. The general rule of thumb you will hear is 10% per week. However, even that can be too aggressive. It’s important to listen to your body when starting a new activity. Yes you will feel sore- that is natural. But, pain is your body’s way of telling you that something is wrong. If you find yourself feeling pain after your first few runs, take an active rest day or cross train. Strengthening your hips/core will only help your running case- not deter it as runners often feel when they skip a day. Some go-to strength exercises that will target your gluteal muscles, quadriceps, and hamstrings are double/single-leg bridges, clamshells, lunges, and varied squats. This will improve the muscles that need to be strong for a healthy running gait.
Use training programs:
Using a training program is a great way to make sure you stay on a schedule and incorporate a variety of exercise. It builds in a rest day, cross training, and pace days if you have progressed to improving your times. Remember that pace isn’t important for the novice runner. You have to run a mile at 10 minutes before you can run it at 8. So take your time! It’s not a race- until it actually is race day.
Last but not least, shoes:
All of the high impact forces of being in flight- the difference between walking and running- are introduced through your feet. Foot posture and appropriate support are important. Remember, running looks different on everyone. We are all snowflakes in that regard- no two gait patterns will be exactly the same. That means it’s important to know what you’re working with- are your hips weak? Does your foot flatten too much with weight-bearing? These are all reasons why over time you could end up with pain during and after a run. I can’t recommend a specific shoe for you, but I can tell you that having a shoe that will support you appropriately is important to reducing risk of injury. Get to your local running store and have them watch you run! They can make informative suggestions. For those of you already past the point of pain, and in need of more correction- get in to see your local physical therapist. They can formally assess your gait, give expert visual/auditory feedback, and provide guidance.
Let this be your take away:
If running is the goal, go for it! Running will bring you the kind of joy that only a runner can attest to- it’s definitely worth pursuing. But be informed, develop healthy habits early on, avoid training error by jumping the gun, strength train the core/big muscle groups, and use the resources around you to navigate your running journey.