Stay Active Series: Pain-Free Running

We all get sore from time to time after a run. Exercise mavens and beginners alike may experience muscular soreness after a long run. This is true in particular if you have just begun a running program or are training for a race. We just look at it as evidence of a good workout. However, the stabbing or intense pain associated with running injuries is something no one wants to feel. This article will describe common running injuries and steps you can take to prevent them. Note: Although I own a lab coat and have played doctor before, I am not a physician. Seriously, your doctor can most accurately diagnose and treat any and all injuries associated with your participation in an exercise program. This article is not to be used as a substitute for medical supervision.

Shin splints are the bane of many people new to running or walking. The term is often applied to any pain at the front of the lower leg. True shin splint symptoms actually occur at the front inside of the shin bone and are a result of the muscles of the lower leg pulling the sheath around the tibia (shin bone) and causing inflammation.  The pain usually disappears during a run, but may return afterward or the next morning. There is sometimes swelling or even redness in the affected area and pointing the toes might hurt.

Runners who overpronate (feet rolling or flattening), wear improper footwear, run on hard surfaces or increase their training too quickly can develop shin splints. Inflexibility at the ankle joint is another contributing factor.

Patellofemoral pain syndrome is a term used to describe pain at the front of the knee. This occurs, in general, when the kneecap (patella) does not move in the correct fashion when the knee is in motion. This may happen when any of the structures around the knee are tight, such as the IT band, or weak, such as muscles on the inside of the thigh. The resulting lateral pull takes the kneecap off track.

Other causes of patellofemoral pain syndrome include a sudden increase in mileage, simple overuse, pronating feet and a larger than normal angle between the pelvis and the knee. A larger Q angle, as it is called, is common in women due to their wider pelvis, which makes this condition more prevelant in women than men.

Illiotibial band syndrome is often called IT band syndrome or runner’s knee. The IT band is a sheath of thick connective tissue, which runs on the outside of the leg from the hip bone down to the shin bone, just below the knee. One of its major functions is to help straighten the knee, so running will irritate it, especially downhill running. Athletes suffering from IT band syndrome often report tenderness on the outside of the knee or on the outside of the glutes.

A difference in leg length, overpronation (of course!) and weak hip muscles are common reasons for this problem. A naturally tight IT band makes some runners more likely to battle this challenge.

Anyone who spends a lot of time on their feet or runs may develop plantar fasciitis. This painful overuse injury is caused by a weakening of the plantar fascia or arch tendon of the foot. The plantar fascia is a wide, thick band of tissue stretching from the heel to the front of the foot. Once thought to be an inflammatory condition, plantar fasciitis is now considered to be an injury resulting from degeneration of the collagen fibers close to the heel bone attachment. So this heel pain, which is often worse in the morning, is another benefit of growing older. Also, runners who overpronate are more susceptible due to the feet rolling in or flattening during movement.

Achilles tendinitis is a common running injury. Akin to plantar fasciitis, this injury usually results from degeneration of tissue. In this case, degeneration of the tendon which connects the calf muscles to the heel bone and provides the push in walking, running and jumping. The pain may appear gradually at the heel or slightly above the heel and does not subside during exercise. The area may be tender to the touch or red and swollen.

The causes of Achilles tendinitis range from a sudden increase in training to tight calf muscles to a change in footwear. Hill running and overpronation may lead to problems as well.

Given the common factor in these injuries is overpronation, remember to wear the right shoes. Paying a little extra for the right shoe, fit by a knowledgeable salesperson is worth every penny if it helps you run pain free. Also, change your shoes on a regular basis. Running shoes have a life of about 6 months or 350 miles.

Warm up for at least five minutes before you run by walking, performing calisthenics or another activity, which enhances blood flow. When you are training, never increase your mileage by more than 10% a week.

Stretching is best performed after your run, as the muscles are most pliable. You can remember what to do with a bottom up approach. Begin with a calf stretch, move to your hamstrings and remember your hip flexors and IT band. Five minutes spent after a run can help prevent a myriad of aches, pains and injuries.

Finally, a whole-body strength training program is an important component in running injury-free. Whether you lift weights, swim, or perform simple calisthenics, stronger muscles allow your body to function optimally, no matter what you are doing.