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Protecting Yourself from Running Injuries

Hope Rush running

With running comes many benefits: it improves your overall health, boosts your confidence, may help you lose weight, relieves stress, can help you combat disease and depression, and studies show it can increase your life expectancy. With any type of exercise, it is important to know how to protect yourself from injury. Dartmouth-Hitchcock Physical therapists Jason Godsell, PT, DPT, and Greg Hagley, PT, DPT, discuss how runners can enjoy the benefits of running while protecting themselves from injury.

Hagley: You can group avoiding running injuries in three ways: having a running progression/training plan, working on your running form, and adding strength and flexibility training.

With a training plan, it is important to run often—aim for a minimum of four days a week—and slowly progress distance or time running. If you’re new to running, don’t lace up your new running shoes and run five miles. It is often a good idea to start with a walk/run.

Godsell: One suggestion is using the 10 percent rule. This means that you should not increase your mileage more than 10 percent of the week before. This is just a guideline, but a good way to avoid pushing yourself too hard and getting a running injury.

Good running form can be very complex, so it’s better to think of a couple simple things you can do. To reduce a lot of joint impact, cadence (steps per minute) is key. On hundred seventy steps-per-minute is a good first step for recreational runners, but 180 steps-per-minute is an ideal cadence for most people. To keep track, there are watches and cadence apps for your smart phone, so you can keep a pace that is appropriate for you. And, there is always the old-fashioned method of counting how many steps you take in a minute.

Hagley: One way to simplify your running form is to focus on landing lightly on your feet. It’s not so much about if you have a heel strike, midfoot strike, or a forefoot strike; what is most important is if your foot is landing gently beneath your body. It is the foundation for good running posture. If you have issues, it usually helps to have your gait looked at by a physical therapist or certified running coach.

Strength training is another way to avoid injury. It not only helps running performance, but can also help with running-related injuries, such as overuse injuries and strains.

Hagley: Strength training can also help with running posture. When you get tired, there are several typical patterns where your running form can cause problems. You may over-rotate by swinging your arms across your body. Second, your shoulders may hunch forward while your hips move backward into a flexed position. Last, your knees often become less stable with fatigue. Targeted strengthening and stability exercises can help control these forces.

Godsell: When it comes to pain and running, there are times when you need to stop. If you’re experiencing sharp pain, or if the pain gets worse as you run, these are good reasons to stop and take a break. Also, if the pain crosses over into normal, daily life such as climbing stairs, it’s time to take a break from running. Running pain should not stop you from doing things in your normal life. Interpreting aches and pains can be tricky and may require a visit to a physical therapist.

Hagley: If you would like to self-treat a temporary pain, icing sore areas for 10 to 20 minutes after a run is often a good idea. Fatigued muscles and tendons can become sore and tight. Proper stretching and recovery can help you prepare to get out on the road again soon. There are many recovery tools such as foam rollers, compression socks, roll-recovery, etc. While there may not be great scientific evidence for the use of any one of these tools, many long-time runners depend on their post-run recovery tool to help them loosen their muscles and prepare for the next run.

Godsell: It’s all about preparing yourself more adequately for running and doing it in a gradual, systemic fashion. If you take it slow and take care of your body, it becomes more about preventing injuries than having to recover from them.

Staying injury-free requires good habits—good running hygiene. Regular running and mindfulness of your body’s response will maximize the joy and other health benefits from exercise.