As mindful runners, we can take all the proper precautions to make sure that we’ll never have to worry about hurting ourselves, but the reality is that no one is immune to injury.
Let’s take a quick look at the five most common running injuries, how they manifest themselves and the best ways to treat them.
1. Plantar Fasciitis
In my experience, plantar fasciitis is the peskiest problem that plagues the running wounded. During my almost four-year stint working as the manager of a specialty running store, complaints of persistent heel pain were heard more often than any other injury or ailment. Most times, the culprit could be pegged as plantar fasciitis – a sharp, tight and painful sensation at the base of the heel that was annoying to some and excruciating for others.
Many a customer would describe the first steps out of bed in the morning, or first few strides of a run, as comparable to stepping heel first onto a nail. Eventually, the pain might go away as the day or run carried out, only to return afterward or again the next day. It’s a vicious cycle for sure.
What causes plantar fasciitis? Overtraining, overuse and improper or worn-out footwear, yes, but the real root of the problem lies in tight and weakened muscles that aren’t able to handle the training you are trying to do.
The fix: Orthotics and high stability shoes oftentimes serve as effective bandaids and can help eliminate a lot of people’s symptoms in a short period of time. And while I’m not absolutely against these quick fixes, by no means are they the only – or the best – way to make the pain in your heel go away. In the short term, avoiding bare feet, stretching the calves, rolling your feet around on a golf ball and icing the affected area will provide some much-need relief relatively quickly. Long term, however, diligent stretching, combined with strengthening the muscles in and around the feet will address the root of the problem and help offset a reoccurrence of this awful injury.
2. Achilles Tendinitis
A closely related cousin to plantar fasciitis, pain that manifests itself at the back of lower leg just the above the heel is often an issue with the Achilles tendon – the thick band of tissue that attaches the calf muscles to the heel bone. Runners who suffer from Achilles tendinitis will often complain of pain and swelling close to the heel, which is oftentimes sharp and can be incapacitating. In my own experience suffering from this injury, I could pinpoint the pain, had significant swelling and recall hearing a “crunchy” sound when I would move my ankle.
What causes Achilles tendinitis? In my case, the injury could be traced to tight calves. Because my lower legs were so tight, a lot of strain was put on my Achilles tendon, and over the course of many months of hard training, this awful overuse injury developed. How awful? It took me nearly nine months to fully recover! With so little blood flow to this area of the body, the healing process is often slow. Aside from tight calves, unsupportive footwear (Note: the definition of “supportive” depends on the individual) can overburden the Achilles tendon over time, or a quick increase in volume and/or intensity can have the same effect much more quickly, so it’s important to pay attention to both your feet and your training – especially when you’re training hard!
The fix: Resting, icing and stretching will all help to relieve symptoms, and things such as orthotics, heel lifts and highly structured shoes are short-term solutions. Long term, however, it’s worth your while to pay close attention to stretching and strengthening the lower legs, as well as what’s on your feet. And of course, keep an eye on your training. Don’t do too much, or go too hard, too quickly.
3. IT Band Syndrome
Ever feel like somebody is stabbing you in the side of the knee when you run, especially when going downhill? This is one of the classic symptoms of IT Band Syndrome, an annoying injury that can often become crippling if not addressed and corrected.
What causes IT Band Syndrome? The short answer is: lots of things. In talking to other runners about their experiences with this injury, the most common correlations I’ve noticed involve downhill running or always running on the same side of the road. Both put a lot of stress on the side of the knee and cause friction between the IT band and the femur. Over time, the IT band tightens and may swell, pain emerges and eventually intensifies to the point where it keeps runners from running.
The fix: Stretching the IT Band, massaging the muscles around the area and foam rolling will help loosen things up, while a regimen of icing and taking ibuprofen will assist in reducing inflammation. Avoid downhill running, and if you always run on the same side of the road, switch directions evry so often. According to Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas’ book, The Runner’s Body, “overcoming this issue is simply a matter of providing variety, which balances out the impact stresses and minimizes injury risk.”
4. Runner’s Knee
Feel a constant ache underneath your kneecap when you run? You likely are experiencing runner’s knee, or patellofemoral knee syndrome. The main symptom is pain just below the kneecap that usually gets worse as the intensity of exercise increases, says Tucker and Dugas.
What causes runner’s knee? As with the other common running injuries listed here, the answer varies depending on the runner. Everything from uneven running surfaces and poor shoe selection to weak quads and hips, as well as unaddressed biomechanical flaws can contribute to this common injury. In most cases, runner’s knee can be traced to the inability of the tissues surrounding the knee to recover in between runs.
The fix: If your knee continues to hurt, don’t run. If there’s inflammation, work on reducing it with the aforementioned ibuprofen/icing regimen. Long term, switching up the surfaces you run on, making sure you’re running in the proper footwear along with employing some simple form fixes will help keep your cranky knee from getting angry with you.
5. Shin Splints
Perhaps the most misunderstood of all the running injuries, the term “shin splints” can refer to any number of ailments that involves pain in the shin area. At their worst, shin splints can turn into a stress fracture along the tibia, and pain will be felt with every stride; in less severe cases, the shin area may be tender and inflamed, and pain lessens a few miles into the run. Either way, shin pain is a surefire way to make your running experience rather unenjoyable.
When I was working at the running store, the most common complaints of shin splints came at me from two different directions: during the first few weeks of a beginning runner’s training program, or at the start of high school track season. Why? In both cases, the shin pain could almost be certainly traced back to the sudden spike in volume and intensity during the first week or two of running workouts.
What causes shin splints? As mentioned in the preceding paragraph, quick increases in volume and intensity can usually receive the biggest blame. Think about it. When you start running, especially if you haven’t been doing much of – or any – of it, what takes almost all of the initial impact forces that run through your body? The lower legs. Combine that with regular running on hard surfaces and worn out or improper footwear and you have a recipe for imminent disaster. And as with many of the aforementioned injuries, tight muscles don’t help matters much, either. The less mobile the muscles surrounding your shin are, the more stress there is on the entire area.
The fix: Rest, ice and ibuprofen will do wonders right off the bat and will help reduce the tenderness and inflammation. As you ease back into running, pay attention to your training, as well as your equipment and environment. Increasing volume and intensity too quickly will almost always lead to trouble. Running on soft surfaces such as trails or grass will help reduce the impact on your lower legs, and paying close attention to the mileage on your running shoes will ensure that you’re not trotting on tired treads.