A Runner's Guide to Injury Prevention

If you love running as much as I do, you know how frustrating it is when an injury puts the activity you enjoy on hold. Many runners face injury at one time or another, which isn't surprising, given the strain that running can put on your joints. There are a few common injuries you might encounter during your running career, and although it's not always possible to prevent a problem from happening, there are things you can do to prevent and reduce your risk of injury in the future.

Illiotibial (IT) Band Syndrome

The illiotibial band is part of a muscle that runs along the outside of the knee. It can become painful and swollen when it starts to rub on the kneecap. This is typically an overuse injury that occurs if you try to run too far, too soon.

Short-term treatments include ice packs to reduce swelling and anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen. (Of course, you should check with your doctor before taking any kind of medication.) Longer term, reducing mileage or cross-training outside of running is typically recommended. Stretches that target the IT band can also reduce pain and prevent future problems. The following IT band stretches and release techniques can help:

Shin Splints

The phrase "shin splint" is a generic term that describes pain in the lower leg, either on the medial (inside) or lateral (outside) side of the shin bone. This pain usually begins as a dull ache that can't be pinpointed; it can be felt along the entire region where the muscle attaches to the bone.

An ice pack can help reduce pain and swelling in the short term. Longer term, resting from running (cross-training instead) and reducing mileage once you're ready to start running again will help. 

Plantar Fasciitis

The plantar fascia is a ligament that runs along the bottom of the foot that can become irritated and inflamed in runners. Typically, the pain is most noticeable in the morning after you've been off your feet for an extended period of time. Putting weight on the inflamed area puts stress on the ligament and causes pain. Running long distances or repetitive pounding on the heel of the foot during exercise are factors that contribute to the development of this condition.

In the short-term, ice and anti-inflammatories can reduce pain and swelling. Longer term, rest from running and other activities that put stress on the foot and heel are recommended, which is why swimming would be a good option for cardio activity during this time. Using a tennis or golf ball to massage the bottom of the foot can also provide relief, as can stretches. Here are two stretches to try:
  1. Seated Plantar Fascia Stretch: Sit with your ankle on the opposite knee. Grasp your toes and pull them back gently until you feel a stretch in the arch of your foot. Hold for 20-30 seconds, then release and repeat. Do this 5 times on each side, and a few times each day.
  2. Standing Plantar Fascia Stretch: Put a book (or board) on the floor a few feet from the wall. Place the balls of your feet on the book with your heels in the air. With a straight knee, lean into the wall, keeping your hips and legs in a straight line. Hold for 10 seconds, release and repeat. Do this exercise 5 times, a few times each day.

Runner's Knee

Commonly referred to as "runner's knee," patellofemoral pain syndrome is described as pain under and around the kneecap. The pain is often worse when you're active or sitting for long periods of time. It can also worsen when squatting or descending stairs.

Rest is one of the first lines of defense against runner's knee. Either cutting back on your mileage or taking a break from running by cross training instead can help with the pain. Stretching and strengthening the muscles around the kneecap can also prevent future problems. 

General Injury Prevention

As you might have noticed, these types of injuries have common causes, treatments and plans for prevention. In general, there are several things you can do to be proactive and help keep your body healthy and pain free as a runner.
  • Wear the right shoes. It is important to make sure your shoes fit properly, so take the time to go to a specialty running store and get fitted for a pair that meets your needs. You might pay a little more, but typically the staff has the expertise needed to find the right shoe for you.
  • Cross train. Running is a high-impact activity that puts a lot of stress on your body. Although it's a great workout, incorporating other cardio activities (walking, biking, aerobics, swimming, dancing, etc.) into your routine gives your body a break and prevents overuse injuries.
  • Progress slowly. It's great to be enthusiastic, but it's also important to give your body time to adapt to the demands of running. As a general rule, don't increase your weekly mileage by more than 10% at a time. Doing too much too soon dramatically increases your risk of injury.
  • Strength train and stretch regularly. Running alone isn't enough to keep your body healthy and balanced in every aspect. Both strength training and stretching will help reduce your risk of injury and also improve your performance. If your muscles are strong and relaxed, you're much more likely to do better when race day arrives!
  • Rest. Although it seems like the more you do, the better off you'll be, that's not always the case. Your body needs time to rest and recover. Rest is important and over-exercising has negative consequences for your health just as inactivity does.
Understanding a running injury is the key to finding an effective treatment and developing a plan to prevent future problems. Even if you've never experienced any of the aches and pains discussed above, it's always a good idea to be proactive. This ensures your road to the finish line will be a smooth one!