With spring finally upon us, the fun run season has begun. Whether you’re a first timer or a season pro there’s always the danger of injury. In an ideal world every run would be 100% pain-free. No aches, or soreness from the previous run. The reality is that all runners constantly deal with slight (and not so slight) discomfort. While often these nagging issues are nothing more than an annoyance it can be a warning sign that something is awry and can lead to more serious issues.
Like all injuries they cover a broad spectrum of severity. At one end you have the severe, full blown injuries that stop you dead in your tracks – call it the red zone, namely, stress fractures, muscle tears, tendon ruptures. The other end of the scale, the green zone, you’re in top form and run like the wind. Unfortunately many runners tend to hang around the middle yellow zone, not quite injured and not quite healthy.
Where you land on the spectrum depends greatly on how you respond to that first stab of pain. Often it comes down to whether you take a little time off now or a lot of time off later. You can reduce your risk of serious injury thus avoiding the red zone if at the first sign of injury, reduce intensity and duration of your runs, start a treatment program, develop a proactive long-term injury prevention strategy.
Around 40% of running injures are knee injures, the most common being patellofemoral pain syndrome (PFPS), or “runners knee.” It is the irritation of the cartilage on the underside of the patella (kneecap). PFPS usually flares up during and after long runs, sitting for long periods of time, and walking up and down stairs. It may be caused by muscle imbalance around the hips and pelvis altering the biomechanics of the knee, causing the knee to turn inwards during your stride putting increased pressure through the knee. Pain often manifests diffusely around the kneecap, swelling may not always be evident.
Achilles tendonitis is another common injury affecting runners, again an overuse injury it usually manifests when there has been a sudden increase in intensity and duration in running. Pain is located anywhere in the achilles from the heel to back of the calf muscle on the back of the leg. If you have any pain during or after running, stop immediately. This is not the type of injury to run through. If you catch it early, a few days off may be all that is required for healing. If it develops into a more serious condition it may take months or years to fully heal.
“Shin splints” is a generic term used to refer to several conditions affecting the lower leg. It is an achy pain that occurs along the inside edge of the shinbone, most commonly caused by small tears which occur in the muscle around the tibia (shin bone). It is more common among new runners and those returning after an extended time away from the activity. It is a classic sign of too much too quickly. It may also strike runners wearing the incorrect footwear, too little or too much support, a pair with too many miles, or unsupported foot biomechanics such as high/flat arches.
The best way to avoid shin splints is to ensure you have the correct footwear and increase mileage gradually when the first twinge of pain is felt. Back off your running to a comfortable level and increase mileage by no more than 10% each week.
With all these injuries, initial treatment should be regular icing, rest and stretching the affected structures. If the pain and discomfort persists for more than a week, seek professional advice as there may be other underlying biomechanical imbalances causing the injury.