Hey there – welcome back!
Next up is dealing with injuries.
Despite following your training plan to the letter, injuries do sometimes happen. How you handle them can have a huge impact on your ability to run your 5K.
In this post I’ll review the most common injuries for beginning runners, along with some basic guidance on prevention and recovery. However, it’s important to always seek the advice of a professional if you’re concerned about a potential injury.
Before we get into all of that though, I need to lay down some tough love. Recovering from an injury is hard work, but not in the way you think. Most of the time, some rest and a little rehab will do the trick. That’s the easy part. It’s trying to keep yourself from losing your mind while you wait for your body to recover that’s the real challenge.
Why? Because even though your mind has planned out your whole training schedule, your body isn’t always on board. It doesn’t know that you have a 5K in four weeks, all it knows is that you have an injury that needs to heal, and it will do so in its own time. Try to rush it or push your limits, and you might end up not running at all for a long, long time. So listen to your body, because when it comes to recovery, it’s definitely in charge.
Pain vs. Discomfort
Learning the difference between the normal discomfort of running and pain due to a developing injury is important. You can almost always run through discomfort, but the pain is a message to stop (or at least slow down) and evaluate the situation.
Running is uncomfortable. It requires the combined effort of your heart, lungs, and muscles, and when you first start moving, these systems might complain a little bit. Shortness of breath is normal, as is fatigue and a little stiffness. You might even feel the burn of lactic acid buildup if you’re pushing yourself harder than usual. And if I’m being totally honest, for at least the first 15 minutes of your run, you might feel a little like you’re dying. Fortunately, these sensations will subside a little after your body warms up (then you’ll just feel like you’re being tortured).
Kidding, of course. Personally, I love the initial discomfort of running because I know that, in a few minutes, the endorphins will kick in and all will be right with my world. But that’s just me.
Pain, on the other hand, is a pretty clear signal that something is wrong. And while it might be tolerable to do so, running through pain can actually make an injury much worse.
The old adage “no pain, no gain” is just plain wrong. As I said above, your body is in charge when it comes to getting over an injury. Taking enough time to recover is so much more important to your overall fitness than sticking to a training schedule. Why? Because it might mean the difference between running a 5K slower than you like and not running it at all. If you try to trick your body into training through an injury, you might end up sitting on the sidelines instead of participating.
Acute vs. Chronic Injuries
There are two main types of running injuries: acute and chronic. Acute injuries occur when something happens suddenly, such as a pulled hamstring or twisted ankle. In this case, the pain comes on immediately and you’ll know right away that something is wrong. Chronic (overuse) injuries start slowly and get worse over time. In the beginning, you might even be tempted to ignore them (a little piece of advice: don’t).
In general, if you have an acute injury, it’s time to see a doctor for immediate treatment. But if you catch an overuse injury when you first start experiencing symptoms, you have an opportunity to prevent it from getting worse. I’ve listed some of the most common chronic running injuries below with some brief guidance on how to prevent and treat them. If your condition isn’t listed below or you’d like to connect with others that have successfully treated themselves, check out runners forums or join the RunBuzz community. You can often find your symptoms described to a T, along with ideas for home remedies that have worked for others.
Shin splints are commonly felt as a sharp, stabbing pain either along the shin bone or towards the inside of the lower leg above the ankle. Honestly, shin splints SUCK, and they can sideline your run pretty quickly. They also afflict beginners more than experienced runners. Heal them by taking at least a week or two off of running, applying ice to the painful area for 15 minutes twice a day, and regularly stretching your calves.
There are a few reasons why shin splints occur: doing too much too soon, inappropriate footwear, and/or running with your heel too far out in front of your body. Do your best to prevent them by progressing your training slowly, getting fitted for shoes by a professional, and striving to land with your heel directly under your hips.
The knee is a complex joint. Injuries to this area have numerous causes, most of which are biomechanical in origin. When you feel pain in or around your knees while running – whether it gets worse or better over the course of your run – take heed. Proper stretching and foam rolling of the IT band after running (never before!) can help, as can strengthening the muscles that surround and support the knee (in particular, the quadriceps). However, if the pain continues after a few runs or gets worse, please see a specialist. The solution might be as simple as wearing a knee brace, but your pain could also be a sign of something serious. Don’t mess around. Get it checked out.
The IT (iliotibial) band is a thick, fibrous band that starts at the hip, continues down the outside of the leg, and attaches just below the knee. It’s responsible for lateral stability in the knee, and when it’s tight, pain can be felt either on the outside of the knee or near the hip, as the band repeatedly rubs over bone and becomes inflamed. Again, stretching and foam rolling this area after running and on days off can aid in a quicker recovery.
Pain and/or swelling in the Achilles tendon, which is located just above the heel, can be a sign of Achilles tendinitis. This area tends to be a weak point in many people, especially those who overpronate, and healing usually takes awhile.
Caught early, it’s not a problem. Let it continue, however, and you could be in some serious pain. The Achilles tendon is prone to tearing – and recovering from a torn tendon takes much longer than letting an inflamed one get better. Tight calf muscles can also be to blame, so daily stretching of the calves can help with injury prevention. However, beware of over stretching, as this can cause damage too.
Oh, this is a painful one! Essentially, the plantar fascia (a band of tissue that runs from the heel along the bottom of the foot) becomes inflamed and causes pain. It’s most commonly felt in the heel first thing in the morning after getting out of bed and usually feels better after walking a bit. Please don’t be fooled by the fact that it improves during the day! This is one injury that will hobble you if not properly treated. Sometimes poor shoe support or overpronation is to blame, and other times tight calves are at fault.
Orthotics can help, as well as rolling the bottom of the foot on a tennis ball. My husband also swears by a Strassburg sling (a special nighttime foot brace that keeps the foot flexed overnight, which keeps the fascia from shrinking up).
If you experience this type of pain and none of the above work for you within a few weeks, don’t mess around. See a specialist for professional advice.
(Note: not really an injury, but it is painful). A side stitch is basically a cramp in your diaphragm muscle, usually caused by either irregular breathing or having too much liquid or food in the stomach while running. The immediate fix is to take a walk break, slow down your breathing, and wait it out. Try raising your hands above your head for 10 seconds while you walk. Prevent them in the future by waiting a few hours after a big meal and by not chugging water before your run.
There are many other types of pain that can occur while running, and if anything persists for more than a couple weeks it’s time to see a doctor.
It’s much easier to prevent injuries than recover from them, and strength training can really help with this prevention. Strong, flexible muscles are less likely to get hurt, and contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to spend hours in the gym to do it.
Just 15-20 minutes twice a week can make a big difference – a few sets of squats, lunges, hip bridges, calf raises, and planks (front, side and back) will hit the key running muscles and keep them strong. Special equipment isn’t needed, either – just your body weight. For a more structured program designed specifically for runners, check out the resources page.
Staying in Shape During Recovery
Unless your doctor explicitly instructs you to stay off your feet while you’re recovering, make sure to cross-train to maintain your hard-earned fitness. If you do, you’re much more likely to be ready to pick up where you left off on your training plan when your injury heals.
Cycling, rowing, and swimming are all great alternative activities. Pool running is another fantastic way to keep your muscles in shape without the impact that can slow healing.
I know how tough it can be to stay positive when it feels like your body has betrayed you, but trust me – you absolutely will get better with time. And if you allow yourself to recover properly, you’ll end up even stronger. Keep that in mind when you feel discouraged, and look forward to the day when you can get back at it.
Next week is the final post in this series: Race Day Strategies. You don’t want to miss this one – I’m going to share all my secrets for having a great first race.
In the meantime, run fabulous!
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