10 Ways to Train Smarter and Avoid Injury

By , Elizabeth Lowry, Staff Writer
The late-February morning sun was warming the crisp trail air, I had a clear view of the calm Little Miami River through the still-bare trees and I had just hit mile 4.5. Suddenly, my muscle starting tugging at me, a faint whisper that I could ignore. As I continued to run, the whisper grew to a shout, so loud that I finally had to acknowledge the old, familiar tug of pain in my left hip.

I had dealt with this pain before, off and on over the past six years—first on my right side and now on my left. My heart sank as I knew of only one thing that had ever made the pain go away: No more running.

I managed to get in another mile before I threw in the towel. I was mad. I had gotten up to eight miles in my training without a hitch. Now my side was acting up? I couldn't think of anything I'd done differently. I wasn't even halfway through my training for the Flying Pig Half Marathon, and here I was, sidelined.

When I got home, I cycled through my usual injury routine—stretching, ibuprofen, ice and time off of running. With a looming May 1 deadline in mind, I knew I had to see a doctor to get at the underlying cause and get back into my training. Plus, my pride was on the line. I shouted from the rooftops that I was running this race. This time, if there was a will, I was going to find a way.

The Diagnosis

I had injured my neck on two separate occasions in the past—once, in a car accident and once when I was doing my hair (true story, I can't really explain that one). To treat both of those injuries, I went to Dr. Eiselt at Mt. Lookout Chiropractic & Sports Injury Center.

At my appointment the following Tuesday, he had me do a few diagnostic tests to determine what was wrong with my hip. In his words: "You have dysfunction in your pelvis, hip and feet, along with poor recruitment of the gluteal muscles. Over time this led to poor timing of your pelvic muscles, especially your gluteal muscles, [which] led to irritation to the pelvic musculature because those muscles had to work harder because the glutes were not firing at the right time. In order for you not to just fall to the ground, the psoas and other muscles around the hip and pelvis were overloaded and got more irritated causing pain fibers to be stimulated to tell you to do something about it."

In laymen's terms, I had strained my psoas major muscle which contributes to flexion in the hip joint. It is part of a group of muscles called the hip flexors, which primarily work to lift the upper leg toward the body when the body is stationary or to pull the body toward the leg when the leg is stationary. According to Runner's World, the psoas is integral to running. "For a runner averaging 180 strides per minute, the left and right psoas each contract and lengthen more than 5,000 times during the course of an hour run."

So, the million-dollar question: Did the strain disrupt my training? One month after that whisper that turned into a shout, I'm happy to report that, no, it did not. In addition to several chiropractic adjustments, I received electrical muscle stimulation (EMS) at each appointment, which fatigues muscles and releases endorphins for pain control, and adenosine triphosphate (ATP) to speed up the healing process. I also saw a physical therapist who guided me though a couple of exercises to do at home every day.

The first couple of runs after my diagnosis were not pain free, but after a couple of weeks and some great advice from my doctor, it definitely improved and I'm back on my training plan.

What to Do If You Suspect an Injury

According to Dr. Eiselt, the most common running injuries he sees are plantar fasciitis and shin splints. Runner's World also counts Achilles tendonitis, runner's knee, hamstring injury and iliotibial band syndrome (ITBS) as other frequently occurring problems.

How do you know when to push through an injury and when to call a doctor? According to Dr. Eiselt, "A rule of thumb is if you can run and have no pain or increase in pain, then you are good. If you stop running and [the] pain also goes away, you are okay. If pain continues to increase or does not go away once you stop your run, you are not ready yet."

If your pain falls in that last category, you need to stop running and get evaluated by a doctor as soon as possible to prevent further injury. The sooner you can be evaluated, the sooner you can get back to running.

Stop an Injury Before It Starts

To keep injuries at bay, try these 10 tips:

1. Take your time. Be careful that you don’t train too fast or over train, which are two quick ways to set yourself up for injury. Also, monitor how often you practice speed work. If you are practicing speed intervals a couple of times a week and then racing on the weekends, you are not giving your body adequate rest time.

2. Cross-train. Cross training or participating in other forms of exercise should be an integral part of your training. It helps reduce the risk of developing overuse injury by challenging your muscles in other ways.

3. Take rest days. Just as you wouldn't want to eat only fruits and vegetables all day, every day, you also don't want to push your body to its limits by training day in and day out. Give your muscles a chance to rest and recuperate and your body will reward you in the end.

4. Strength train. To prevent injury to muscles and ligaments, make them stronger. Adding strength training to your running workouts will help you achieve a more balanced musculature for greater power.

5. Watch your running surfaces. Vary your running surfaces whenever possible. Instead of only pounding the asphalt, consider running on grass, sand, dirt trails or even in the swimming pool. Pushing off softer surfaces can strengthen your muscles, minimizing injury.

6. If you feel pain, try RICE. Think rest, ice, compression and elevation for immediate treatment of the injured area whenever possible. When done in combination, RICE can help reduce swelling, relieve pain and protect damaged tissue, which can act as a speedy recipe for healing.

7. Stretch. Stretching after exercise is a must, but pay particular attention to the areas that tend to suffer from running injuries the most to keep muscles limber and ready for your next workout.

8. Watch your form. If you're not sure what proper running form looks like, have your stride screened before you start training. You can get running evaluations at most local running shops or check with a sports medicine practice. Dr. Patrick Labelle, a board-certified chiropractic sports physician, agrees. "Ideally, you would be screened at least one month before the running season begins. That gives you time to make changes if needed before you start ramping up the mileage." 

9. Listen to your body. Is your knee subtly telling you it's at its limit? Don't ignore it. You listen to your body when it's telling you that you're tired or hungry, why not listen to it when it says you need to slow down, rest or seek treatment for an injury? Don't ignore that important voice inside you.

10. Wear proper shoes. The average person takes 2,000 steps to walk a mile. Shouldn't you get the right shoes to cover the distance comfortably and safely? Do some research to find the shoe that works for you or go to your local running store and have your shoes fitted by a professional.

Have you had to deal with a running injury? Let us know in the comments!

Join us every other Tuesday as we update you on our Flying Pig half marathon training, and help you get prepared for a big race. Follow along on our journey on Instagram using the hashtag #runsparkrun.