A few runners sustain rather serious injuries, such as stress fractures or ACL tears, that often require surgery and extensive rehabilitation. On the other end of the scale, a few runners cover hundreds or thousands of miles over the years and never experience anything beyond some mild discomfort.
Most people fall somewhere in between. They get hurt, and although they don’t need surgery to correct the issue, the pain is impossible to “walk off.”
What are some common running injuries, and more importantly, what can be done to address them?
Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome
Knee injuries are among the most common running injuries, and PFPS (Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome) is the most common knee injury, so this is a good place to start. Runners who put even a little more stress on their knees, perhaps due to weak glutes or improper gait, are at risk for this injury. Discomfort usually flares up during or after long runs, while running upstairs, or after a prolonged period of sitting. These activities cause synovial irritation, or bone bruising.
PFPS (Runner’s Knee) is characterized by pain around the kneecap. Some people also experience Crepitus (unexplained joint noises) and muscle weakness.
Most people can run through PFPS. Run uphill, perhaps on a treadmill, as much as possible, because the exercise strengthens your glutes. Swimming and bicycling are good during PFPS recovery periods as well, because they also strengthen the glutes and place no stress on the knee. Once you can sit through an entire two-hour movie or cover your normal mileage without any pain whatsoever, the injury has probably healed.
To prevent recurrence, remember what usually causes PFPS in the first place:
Sidestep exercises will strengthen your glutes and hips. Loop a resistance band above your ankles, bend your knees, and take about a dozen lateral steps while keeping your upper body straight. To increase resistance even further, walk on your toes.
Pay attention to your gait. Shorten strides, land with knees bent, and increase the number of steps you take by about 10 percent.
Other common knee injuries include meniscus tears (a breakdown of the cartilage that cushions the joint) and MCL (Medial Collateral Ligament) tears that affect the tissue on the inside of the knee.
This classic overuse injury affects about one in ten runners at one time or another, largely because it involves one of the most important and one of the most vulnerable leg muscles. This tendon connects the heel with key calf muscles.
If you feel pain in your heel, do not keep going. Additional stress on an inflamed tendon may cause a tear that takes months to heal and often requires surgery. Instead, use the RICE approach for at least two weeks:
Rest: Do not put any weight on the ankle. If you must move around, here are some of the best crutches to use. Exercise is okay as long as it is swimming or something else that puts no stress on the injured ankle.
Ice: Cold therapy relieves pain, decreases swelling, and reduces inflammation. It’s fine to use a commercial ice pack, as long as it remains freezer cold for twenty minutes, which is how long you should ice the injury.
Compression: Kinesiology tape or an Ace bandage further reduce swelling and also support the leg muscles while the tendon heals.
Elevation: Use pillows or other props to keep the injured ankle elevated above your heart. At the same time, be sure you allow blood to flow to the injured area. Some light range-of-motion exercises, like ankle bends, are usually a good idea.
The injury has healed once the affected ankle looks, feels, and acts just like the unaffected one.
If PFPS is a flashing yellow light (proceed with caution) and Achilles tendinitis is a flashing red light (stop), hamstring injuries, which are also very common running injuries, are like unmarked intersections. Sometimes you may proceed with caution and sometimes you must stop and employ the RICE method.
All these muscle injuries hurt a lot, but the physical symptoms often serve as the dividing line. If the hamstring is bruised, the muscle is probably pulled, so inaction is required or else the injury will get worse. If there is nothing but pain, it’s probably okay to continue at a less-intense pace. Add compression tights and one-leg deadlifts to your routine as well. Later, to rehab a hamstring injury, try bridges. Lie on your back with your feet elevated on an exercise ball or chair. Raise your hips and one leg, then lower the hips and raised leg.
Injuries are usually a part of physical fitness, so instead of panicking or becoming depressed, know what to do and how to get better.