An Ounce of Prevention
The best fix for running injuries is to avoid hurting yourself in the first place. It's not as difficult as you might think.
Posted Sunday, 26 April, 1998
First things first: running is not an invitation to pain and injury. The fact that you enjoy pushing yourself, enjoy exploring the roads and trails around you, enjoy the simple act of motion -- this does not doom you to bad knees and shredded tendons, despite popular myth. Running is not a filthy habit.
If you run strictly for fitness -- 30 minutes, three times a week -- you will probably never be injured except perhaps for some pesky shin splints when you're first starting out. Running is good for you; revel in your health and strength.
When you begin to run beyond that level, however, you are running for performance. By definition, this means that you are pushing your body to its limit in order to get ever better results. You're redlining. If you keep it up, then eventually you'll probably stray beyond what you can handle. When that happens, your body inevitably cries uncle.
Never fear, with the proper care you can nurse your legs back to health. But learn from your injuries. It's not running per se that causes your body to break down; it's the amount or the manner in which you run. Let your injury be a caution, and adjust your routine so that it doesn't happen again.
If you've gone and injured yourself, then we're afraid it's time for a dose of Cool Running's own special brand of tough love. It's not easy to say, it can be even harder to hear, but it has to be said: you probably had it coming to you. Nine times out of ten, you've run too far, or too fast, or just plain too much. This injury didn't just happen to you; you've run yourself into the ground.
With that behind us, let's get down to the nitty-gritty of how you can keep this from happening again.
No matter how good a runner you are, don't let yourself forget the cardinal rule of running: patience. Go easy whenever you're adding mileage or intensity to your program. While part of running is all about pushing your limits, you have to push them gently. If you try to rip through them, you're just as likely to do the same to a tendon. Let your brain dictate your program, not your ego.
You can do a lot to prevent injury simply by following a regular stretching program. Just a little light stretching before your run and fifteen minutes of stretching afterward will go far to keep your body from rebelling. Sure, fifteen minutes probably seems like a huge amount of time, but it's a small sacrifice for injury-free running.
Check out our complete guide to stretching for detailed pointers. And don't forget to do some gentle running both before and after your run to help keep your muscles from tightening up on you.
Treat Your Feet>
Be sure that your shoes aren't worn out and that you have the right model. The modern running shoe has all kinds of high-falutin' gizmos to adjust for the natural structural flaws in just about any foot out there. That's great if you're wearing a shoe that's designed to correct the specific imbalance in your foot. But it can be bad if you're wearing a shoe designed for a completely different type of foot. The wrong shoe can actually aggravate existing problems, causing injuries in your feet, legs, knees or hips.
Be cautious when buying your shoes. Go to a specialty running shoe where you can be properly fitted, and replace them every 400 or 500 miles. If it turns out that you have biomechanically weak feet, you might also look into getting fitted for heel lifts or orthotics. Look over our shoe-shopping tips for lots of details on finding the shoe that's right for you.
Now that you've got the right shoes, use them on the right surface. Avoid rock-hard surfaces like concrete sidewalks and aim instead for grass or dirt trails. The idea, of course, is to run where the ground will absorb more shock, instead of passing it along to your legs. Try to be consistent. A sudden change to a new running surface can itself be a cause of injury. Whatever you do, though, get off the concrete. It's approximately 10 times as hard as asphalt, and is easily the worst possible running surface. Runners World agrees, as evidenced by its ranking of surfaces on a scale of 1 (awful) to 10 (best):
Wood chips 9
Cinder track 7.5
In some cases, injury results simply because you've been focusing too much on your running muscles and not enough on the others. Your muscle groups are out of balance. Knee injuries, for example, often result from the fact that running strengthens the back of the legs more than the front of the legs. Your relatively weak quadriceps aren't strong enough to keep your kneecap moving in its proper groove, and it starts to hurt. Strengthen those thigh muscles, and the pain will often go away. Cool Running recommends several strengthening exercises that can help you prevent injuries, as well as recover from them.
Stronger, Faster, Smarter>
It all adds up, simply enough, to treating your body like the complex instrument that it is. Change and improvement will come, but you shouldn't rush it. Be conservative in your training program, treat yourself gently, and you'll experience a long running career, largely free of injury.