Running for Beginners: Tips to Avoid Injury
There’s a reason your local streets and tracks are clogged with runners: Running is a great way to exercise. It improves heart health and helps you maintain a healthy weight. It doesn’t take a lot of physical coordination or fancy equipment. You can do it anywhere, no gym membership required. And for many, running a 5K or marathon is a bucket-list accomplishment.
But if you’re a runner, you’ve probably run into some bad news as well: aches and pains. Running injuries affect up to 50 percent of runners every year.
So keep running and training, just go about it safely. We asked Catherine Reese, MD, CAQSM, sports medicine doctor at Franciscan Health in Indianapolis, for her tips on how to safely train.
Q: What Are Common Running Injuries?
A: “Runner’s knee” or patellofemoral syndrome is what I see most often. It’s due to muscles in your hip or knee that aren’t strong enough to hold your kneecap firmly in place during running. The kneecap ends up moving and rubbing a little differently, causing pain in the front part of the knee.
Other problems that can cause pain include:
- Piriformis syndrome, a hip problem where a muscle pinches the sciatic nerve
- Weakness in the glutes (buttock muscles), which can cause pain on the outside or lateral part of the hips
- Ankle problems, since the ankle, particularly the Achilles heel, is prone to stress injuries
Q: How Can Runners Avoid Injuries?
A: Much of the lateral hip and knee injuries are caused by weak glutes. So strengthen those muscles to help prevent injuries.
And don’t forget to ease in and out of a workout:
- Warm up: Warming your muscles up before exercising can help avoid injuries. Try a dynamic warm up, which is performing stretches while you’re moving. For example, bring one knee to your chest while walking, then put it down and do the same with the other knee.
- Cool down: Consider incorporating a cool-down period at the end of your workout too, especially if you have medical conditions such as diabetes or high blood pressure.
(Learn more about the importance of warming up and cooling down.)
Q: How Should You Start a Running Program?
A: If you’re just starting a running program, slowly build your endurance with run-walk intervals. It’s mentally and physically easier to run for smaller increments than to run for 30 minutes straight out of the gate.
Here’s what that would look like:
- Start slow: Run for a minute and then walk for four. Repeat six times for a total of 30 minutes.
- Add more running: When that becomes easy, and you’re enjoying it, bump up the running time. Run for two minutes and walk the other three. Repeat that sequence until you reach 30 minutes.
- All running: Continually increase the amount of time you’re running until you’re no longer walking at all.
Q: What’s the Best Way to Train for a Race?
A: My biggest tip is to give yourself plenty of time to train before the event.
Plan for your race: Train for at least three to four months before your race. There are a lot of apps that can help you figure out an appropriate training schedule. Typically, you answer some questions about your current running ability, fitness level and type of race you want to do.
Then the app creates a tailored program for you. Just make sure that you’re gradually increasing your distance and including resting days.
Follow the 10 percent rule: When thinking about adding distance, the 10 percent rule is a good one to follow. It’s based on several studies that show that if you increase your distance more than 10 percent a week, you’re more likely to get injured.
So, if you ran a total of 20 miles last week, this week you could run 22 miles. But if you push beyond that, your risk of injury increases.
Take breaks: You shouldn’t be running every day. Three to four days a week is plenty. Take at least one day a week off entirely. On the other non-running days, do some cross-training. Cross-training mixes in other types of workouts, such as cycling or swimming, to avoid overusing the same muscles.
Listen to your body: If you’re having a lot of pain, slow down or stop for a bit and see if it goes away. If not, see a doctor.
Q: How Can You Tell the Difference Between Soreness and Injury?
A: When assessing your pain, consider severity and duration. If you’re not able to walk, that’s a severe injury, and a doctor should evaluate it.
Normal soreness fades over a few days. An injury will continue despite RICE therapy at home, which includes:
- Rest: Avoid using the injured limb.
- Ice: Apply ice packs to the area on-and-off for the first 48 hours of pain.
- Compression: Wrap elastic-cloth bandages (such as an ACE™ bandage) around the knee or ankle to prevent swelling.
- Elevation: Raise your leg above heart level by propping it up on pillows when lying down.
If you experience severe pain or pain that won’t go away, talk to your family doctor or see a specialist in sports medicine.
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