The longer days of Summer means more daylight hours to fit in long training runs. Upping mileage brings increased stamina, so you can “bring it” at your races; but it can also increase your risk of injury. Overuse injuries are the bane of any runner’s well-laid training plans – this is where some prehab comes into play. Strengthening areas prone to injury will hopefully help you bypass nasty and nagging injuries that often follow you as you log mile after mile. Here are four common running issues and how you can hopefully prevent them.
Symptoms: Pain in the lower leg starting below the knee. It can be either on the outside of the shin (called anterior shin splint) or the inside of the bone (referred to as medial shin splint).
Causes: Shin splints are small tears in the area where the lower leg muscle attaches to the tibia, aka the shin bone. The tears are caused from overuse, especially after periods of inactivity. In runners, shin splints often occur because the calf muscle becomes stronger than the tibialis anterior, the muscle on the outside of the shin.
Prevention: Stretch your calves regularly, even on days you don’t run. And when running, think about lifting your heels toward your pelvis to activate the hamstring rather than propelling yourself forward by pushing off with your feet, which activates the calves. As for strength training, a series of toe and heel walks help to balance the muscles of the lower leg.
Symptoms: Pain in and around the knee cap, especially walking down stairs.
Causes: Known in the medical world as patellofemoral pain syndrome (PFPS), the pain is caused by tracking issues with the knee cap (aka patella) that irritate the bony groove the knee cap actually sits in. While there can be many reasons for this annoying and common problem that most often strikes newbies (and women), it is most often caused by tight hamstrings and calves (the muscles in the back of the leg) coupled with weak quads (the muscle at the front of the thigh).
Prevention: Doing wall sits to strengthen the quads, along with stretching your hamstring regularly but particularly after running, will help keep this issue at bay. Breaking up your training with cycling can also help, since biking works the quads.
Symptoms: Sharp and stinging pain on the outside of the knee; the pain usually goes away when you stop running, but the knee can be sensitive to the touch.
Causes: The iliotibial band, a band of fascia (connective tissue) that runs down the outside of the thigh from the pelvis to the knee, gets so tight that it pulls the knee cap out of alignment, creating inflammation.
Prevention: Roll it! Fascia is a stubborn substance, and daily massage with a foam roller on the outside of your leg is the best preventative medicine. Running downhill can make the pain worse, so if your knees are troubling you, slowly build your hill work. Strengthening the stabilizing muscles on the sides of the pelvis (glute med) helps too. Try side stepping squats with a theraband around your ankles for added resistance to kick these supportive muscles into high gear and help protect your knees.
Symptoms: Pain in the heel of the foot and arch that is especially bad first thing in the morning.
Causes: The fascia on the sole of the foot is pulled taut, often by a tight soleus (a deep calf muscle), and the pressure of running creates microscopic tears and inflammation.
Prevention: A combination of stretching and strengthening is key to keeping your feet happy. Bending your knee when stretching your calf will help focus the lengthening on the soleus. Here’s a standing soleus stretch, or you can try a seated foot stretch too. For strengthening, add some toe scrunches into your daily routine. You might feel like a cat pawing the floor as you literally scrunch your toes, pulling them back toward your heel, but it takes less than a minute to do 50 reps and is really worth your time.
If you are currently experiencing any of these pains, the best advice is to decrease your training – you can always cross train (bike, swim, run in water – as long as it doesn’t create pain) and ice. If you have chronic issues in any of these areas, make an appointment with a physical therapist and get to the root of the problem before the problem becomes too big.