Preventing Injury While Running

Many persons become injured while running, jogging, or walking. These injuries could probably be prevented if the persons observed a few simple "rules" in their running. In this page I will refer to "running", but that word could refer to "jogging" or "walking" as well as "running".

Listen to your Body

A phrase that one hears quite often in conversations about running is "Listen to your Body". By that phrase, people mean that your body will signal you when it is receiving more stress than it can handle. And, it is, after all, stress that causes your body to break down and become injured. Your body uses soreness and pain as signs that you're doing too much in your running and that you need to give your body more rest. Think of it this way: pain is not a natural condition of your body. If you have abnormal soreness or pain in your body, something has happened to cause that soreness or pain. You may be running too fast or too far. You may have the wrong shoes, causing your body to experience abnormal stresses. You may not be getting enough rest. My page on Overtraining has a nice list of symptoms that may occur when you're doing too much. Study that list, because you'll probably experience some of those symptoms from time to time. When you do experience the symptoms, try to understand what you're doing wrong, and then change your training such that your body isn't stressed out and the symptoms disappear.

Get Enough Rest

When you have a run that puts heavy stress on your body (a "heavy" run), cells in your body are damaged. Running is actually destructive to your body. Your body needs time to repair that damage, and it can't do the repair if you continue to subject your body to heavy stress. You must give your body timeto repair the damaged cells. In fact, your body needs at least 48 hours after a "heavy" run before you have another "heavy" run. That is, the day after the "heavy" run should be a day of light stress or a "light" run. This "light" day could be a day with a shorter and/or slower run, a day of light cross training, such as swimming or walking, or a day of rest with no physical activity other than normal activities. In the running literature, this kind of schedule is known as "heavy/light" running.

In addition to "heavy/light" running, you must get sufficient rest during your sleeping hours. Staying up late or partying or watching late-night TV are not conducive to good running. As my mother used to say, "Go to bed and get up with the chickens."

Smaller Increases in Distance and Speed

Pretend you enter a building and want to go to the 54th floor. Also pretend the building has no elevator. You have a choice. Do you want to walk up the stairs one step at a time, or do you want to take two or three steps at a time. If you decide to take more than one step at a time, you'll probably do OK for a few minutes, but you likely won't make it to the 54th floor without stopping to recover and then resorting to doing one step at a time. On the other hand, if you decide to do one step at a time from the beginning, you'll probably still have a struggle reaching the 54th floor, but you'll likely feel a lot better when you do reach that floor. Running is that way. You want to run a longer distance at a faster speed. You have a choice. You can make relatively big increases in distance and speed, or you can make small increases in distance and speed. In either case you'll be subjecting your body to increased stress because you're asking your body to do more. But, doing smaller increases will put less stress on your body, and your body will be better able to adjust to the new stress. The running literature refers to this as the "10% rule", whereby you keep increases in distance and speed to 10% or less. The number "10" isn't a magic number; it is just a typical number. Some runners can handle more than 10% and other runners must have less than 10%. My experience has been that this number varies day by day and week by week as your body-conditions change. But, the principle is the same for everyone: make relatively small changes in your distance and speed. Doing this means you'll probably need more time to reach your distance/speed goals, but you'll do so with significantly less risk of injury. And, if you do become injured, it may be a long time before you reach your goals

Stretch, Stretch, Stretch

During running, your muscles tighten and get shorter, and it is important to stretch them to loosen then and return their length to their normal size. It is also important to make muscles stronger by stretching. Some people stretch before running, others stretch after running, while others (including me) stretch at both times. Be careful, though, because stretching if done wrong or overdone can cause injury. Here are my comments about stretching and pictures of the stretches I do.

Use of the Correct Type of Shoes

Using wrong shoes is one of the main causes of injury. This presents a dilemma because most of us don't know how to choose the correct shoes for our feet. Do you have a high arch? A medium arch? A low arch or flat feet? Do you pronate and if so, how much? Do you supinate? What kind of roads or trails will you be running on? These are some of the questions that must be answered if you are to get the correct shoes for your feet. So, if you're like most runners, you need professional help.

Go to a specialized running store to buy your first pair of shoes. I'm not referring to the mall-type of shoe store, but to a store that specializes in running apparel. Go to a store that has trained personnel who will watch you walk and, hopefully, watch you jog on a tread mill. Many of these stores will video tape you on the mill so they can use the tape to show you what your feet are doing. After the person understands your feet, he or she can recommend the correct type of shoe. Once you've found a shoe that works for you, stick with it as long as it is available. When you run, your body is subjected to a force that is 2-3 times your body weight, and your feet, ankles, legs, knees, and thighs take the brunt of that force. Thus, your shoes should cushion the shock of running to protect your body from the full effect of that force.

Unfortunately, as you run miles and miles and miles, the materials in your shoes compress, and your shoes provide less protection to your body. This means that you'll eventually have to replace your shoes. Shoe manufacturers and runners typically expect a pair of shoes to provide good cushioning for about 500 miles before they need to be replaced. My shoe page gives more details about choosing running shoes.

Have Good Nutrition

Food is the fuel used by your body. Like a car that runs out of gas and stops, if your body runs out of energy, your running will slow and maybe stop. As your food is digested, it is converted to energy that is stored in the cells, and to fat. When you run, the energy propels your body, and if the cells have insufficient energy, you body will attempt to burn fat to obtain energy. However, the burning of fat is a less efficient way of getting energy, and you are better off having sufficient energy in your cells. You do this by eating nutritious foods in sufficient quantities. Typically, a runners diet should consist of about 65% carbohydrates, especially complex carbs like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, 20% protein, and 15% fat. Those numbers are approximations, and different authors will give different numbers. Here is an article that discusses nutrition.

Develop Total Body Strength

Running develops the muscles in the lower part of your body, but it doesn't do much for the upper part of your body. By lifting weights as a cross-training, you can develop the muscles in the upper part of your body. Be careful, though, because injury can happen if you try to lift too much weight. And, you don't want big, bulging muscles since you are a runner not a weight lifter. You want strong but slim muscles that will enhance your running. Click here for suggestions to develop total body strength.

Not Running in Areas & Times of Day That Could Be Dangerous

We've been talking about factors that are under your control, but there are other factors that are not under your control that could lead to injury. Specifically, I'm thinking of the time of day or night that you run and the areas where you run. When possible, choose times that have reduced traffic, especially traffic from drivers that have been drinking, and times in which you can see and be seen by the drivers. Choose areas that are relatively safe, and if you must run in areas that have a higher risk, try and do so with groups of runners. I have a friend who was going to nursing school at Columbia University in New York City. She had to walk to work at midnight. I asked her if there was much risk of her being attacked, and she said, "no", because she always walked with groups of people. She completed her schooling without being attacked, so I guess she was right.

Training Appropriately for your Body

Some runners feel insecure in planning their running, and they try to follow a training plan they got from a book, web site, or another runner. In many cases, that plan is not appropriate for their body, and they end up pushing themselves too hard and become injured. They need to listen to their body and back off in their training if they body signals them that the body can't handle that level of intensity in running. And, they need to learn to adapt their plan to fit their body.

Change of Attitude

Many runners have been sedentary, and they are excited about being able to run, and in many cases excited to be loosing significant weight. They want to run faster and farther, and they push themselves to exceed their previous accomplishments in running. They push themselves beyond the capabilities of their body, and they become injured. To avoid injury, they need to understand and accept the fact that their bodies have limits in the amount of physical activity they can participate in at any point in time, and they need to slow down their rate of physical activity to be compatible with the limits of their body.

Another attitude that concerns me is that runners run but don't walk. I hear beginning runners talk about wanting to increase their distance and speed so they can run for a whole mile with walking. It's as if walking was a stigma that they were trying to avoid. It's true that as a runner develops body-strength and endurance, the need for walking declines, but it is also true that short walking breaks mixed with stints of running will conserve energy and allow the runner to go farther. The breaks reduce the intensity of the run and give the muscles used in running a change-of-pace. So, I hope that runners will consider walking breaks a friend that they can embrace while they are developing the endurance and strength to go it alone.

Respect Your Genes

I've know runners who seem to always be suffering from injuries. As much as they can, they do the "right" things to avoid injury, but they are still injured. I have no scientific evidence for my opinion, but I think they must have a body that is genetically susceptible to being injured from the stress of running. On the other hand, I've known of runners who do dumb things and are not injured. I'm in this latter group. I've only had one injury in my decades of running even though I do dumb things. The latest dumb thing that I've done was my wearing stability shoes for 20 years when I should have been wearing neutral shoes (I supinate). Back in the 80s, while I was in marathon training, I did a really dumb thing -- I wore my shoes for about 1200 miles. When they started to feel like I was running on a board, I would replace them. I'll never know why I wasn't injured (I was running 45 miles per week), but I'm grateful I wasn't. I now replace my shoes every 500 miles.

If you find yourself being injured again and again even though you do the "right" things, consider the possibility that running may not be "right" for your body and that maybe you should consider other ways of being physically active, such as walking, cycling, or swimming.

Make Running a Positive Part of Your Life

Many runners become so enthused about running, that it is hard for them to keep a balance in their lives about their sport. It is important that we run, and it is important that we enjoy it, but, it is not good if we become so obsessed with running that we overdo our training or hurt our relationships with others. This means that we must adjust our schedules and our behavior so we get sufficient rest between runs and so our family and friends won't think that running is more important to us than their relationships with us. My page on addiction discusses becoming positively addicted to running.

Summary of Avoiding Injuries

The following graphic summarizes the major steps to avoid injuries. Click the image for a larger view.

1 comment:

rah said...

Thank you for posting this. Been helpful to me as a beginner.