Though running has been proven to reduce obesity, regulate blood sugar levels, and improve cardiovascular performance (amongst many other health benefits), it is not a risk-free activity. It is estimated, in fact, that 60 to 65 percent of runners are injured every year while participating in this popular endurance sport.
But injuries do not have to be the inevitable hazard of a runner’s life. A number of experts now believe that a majority of running injuries are due to the runner’s ignorance concerning the causes of injuries. A study, published in Sport for All: Sport: Injuries and their Prevention, indicates that if runners knew more about the causes of running injuries, they could reduce such injuries by 25 percent. (Source: Sports Injury Bulletin.)
To learn the exact cause of these injuries, however, most runners may have to disregard much of what they have learned about how to prevent running injuries.
Confronting a Major Myth About Running Injuries
Perhaps the biggest myth about how to prevent running injuries lies in the much-vaunted warm up and cool down periods that are recommended for all those who engage in any form of exercise. The theory is that proper stretching exercises before intensive exercise (the warm-up) gently primes the muscles for the upcoming demands of intense exertion, which will minimize injury. The cool-down period, conversely, gently brings the muscles back to a relaxed state after physical exertion, which, again, is thought to minimize injury.
But studies have shown that, at least for runners, such warm-up and cool-down periods have little effect on injury rates.
One such study, published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine, showed the fallacy of relying upon warm-up and cool-down sessions to prevent running injuries.
A total of 326 Dutch runners participated in this landmark study. For this study, the participants were split into two groups. One group of 159 runners was instructed in proper warm-up and cool-down procedures. To this end, they performed 6 minutes of light jogging and 6 minutes of muscle relaxation exercises. In addition, they were given a series of 10 minutes stretching exercises to perform twice a day.
The remaining 167 Dutch runners were not provided with any instruction on warm-up, cool-down, and muscle stretching exercises to prevent running injuries. At the end of four months, the injury rates of both groups were analyzed and were found to be identical. (The average injury rate, for both groups, was about one injury for every two hours of running).
It should be noted, however, that the two daily ten-minute muscle-stretching periods of the first group did not coincide with their actual running periods. Still, this study indicates that these pre-exercise exercises are not as effective in preventing injuries as runners have been led to believe.
What Does Cause Running Injuries?
Perhaps not surprisingly, the two biggest causes of running injuries are length of running time and inexperience. Many studies have shown that a runner’s risk of injury increases with the cumulative number of hours that he or she runs. (Although this figure varies, it is estimated that a runner can expect to have 1 injury per 150-200 hours of running time.)
For runners who are inexperienced, however, the risk of injury is even greater. A number of studies have shown that runners with less than three years of running experience are more likely to sustain injury.
That said, studies have also shown that previous running injuries are predictors of future running injuries and that consecutive number of days spent running increase the risk of injury.
How to Prevent Running Injuries
These studies indicate that there are several ways that running injuries can be prevented.
Do not overdo it. Since research indicates that over-training can lead to injury, reducing the number of consecutive running days is advisable. The intensity of the run should also be varied in order to minimize the risk of injury from overuse.
Listen to your body. Pain is a warning sign. Listen to your body. If some movement does not feel “right,” or feels painful, immediately cease such activity. Rest for a period of time, then gradually ease back into the movement.
Watch where you run. Ideally, running is designed for flat, level surfaces. The main reason is to absorb shock on the ground instead of in your legs. Concrete is not recommended for running due to its lack of any cushioning for the joints; on average, it is about 10 times harder than asphalt. For high mileage, stick to grass or dirt trails. Try to find roads and paths that are straight and have slow curves. Sudden shifts in direction cause a jolt that may lead to sprains or fractures. To help prevent running injuries, aim for consistency and develop regular routes to avoid switching too often between varied surfaces.
Take over-striding seriously. Landing on your heel when your foot is stretched out beyond your body’s center is called over-striding. A misconception among runners is that longer strides enhance speed. Actually, the opposite is true as over-striding wastes energy, and additionally applies unnatural pressure to the foot due to the braking action that occurs as a result of such strides.
Choose the right shoes. When shoes wear out, they no longer provide sufficient support for your feet. This is critical for a runner because they typically wear down shoes faster than the average individual. To prevent running injuries, you need to have shoes that are meant for running and are appropriately fit to your particular feet (for example, there are shoes designed to assist over and under-pronators, those with fallen arches, and those who have skeletal abnomalities in one or both feet). Specialty shops analyze gait and provide expert assistance in choosing the proper footwear. A good rule of thumb is to replace running shoes every 3 months or every 350 to 500 miles, whichever occurs first.
Heal before returning. If you are recovering from an injury, do not commence running before receiving the approval of a qualified practitioner as you run the risk of further damage. Water running is excellent for rehabilitation and can speed the healing process. Cycling and/or elliptical trainers are also recommended paths to transition from a running injury. It should be noted that there is a high rate of re-injuries for athletes who overtrain or underestimate the time required for full recovery.
Following these principles will not only help you to prevent running injuries but will also assure you an enjoyable running experience.