You finally found the courage to sign up for that half-marathon. But when you kicked your training into high gear, you started to feel pains that slowly turned into a serious buzz kill. So do you continue running or does your body need a break? If you’re unsure, make an appointment with your doctor or physical therapist, stat.
In the meantime, we called on some of the top running experts to share their tips on the best ways to address common running injuries — from 24-hour pangs to serious setbacks. With these strategies, and the help of your own sports doc, you’ll learn how to recover strong — and eventually get your training back on track. Before long, you’ll be cruising through that course, pain free.
When to Give Your Body a Break
Even if you did everything you could to prevent a running injury, that ping in your knee or tweak in your foot may still pop up. Unfortunately, no one is injury-proof. Before you panic, wait to see if the pain resolves itself within 24 to 36 hours. If it does, and you feel OK after your next run, that probably means you’re good to go, says Christy Barth, PT, CSCS, trainer and physical therapist at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine. “If you limp or notice a change in your gait, however, you need to stop and address the issue,” she explains.
Feeling sore but still able to make it through a run without too much misery? Just back off your distance for a week or two and stick to easy runs, says Bryan Heiderscheit, PT, PhD, professor at the University of Wisconsin and director of the UW Runners’ Clinic. You’ll want to skip speed work, too (like those high-intensity treadmill intervals) until you’re back to at least 75 to 80 percent of your usual weekly mileage.
One rehab strategy Heiderscheit often suggests to his patients when they’re feeling pain is practicing a shorter stride, particularly for Achilles, knee and hip pangs. Working toward small, quicker steps takes pressure off your joints, reducing further injury risk. Icing after a workout is also helpful for acute injuries when inflammation is evident, like swelling, redness, tenderness or pain; use the cold compress for about 10 minutes at a time, says Kristine Gneiss, a doctor of physical therapy at NYSportsMed.
If you’re so agonized that you can’t leave the couch, head to a physical therapist or physician to get it checked out.
How to Get Back in the Game
If your pain is at a 5, 6 or more out of 10, you may need a rest from running, says Colleen Brough, PT, a New York City-based physical therapist and assistant professor at Columbia University. But depending on the injury, your doctor may allow you to maintain aerobic fitness by swimming, biking, rowing or using the elliptical.
“The standard prescription is to translate your planned run workout into an equal routine using another [lower impact] activity,” says Adam St. Pierre, head coach of Boulder Nordic Junior Racing team and founder of ASTPcoaching.com. “For instance, a five-mile easy run could be replaced with a one-hour easy bike ride or a session of mile repeats on the track could be substituted for seven minutes of hard effort aqua-jogging.” Before heading to the gym, be sure to ask your doctor what’s smart.
After you’ve rehabbed your injury and your aches have subsided, it’s crucial to ease back in to training. Unless you were sidelined for less than a week, you can’t necessarily pick up right where you left off, says St. Pierre “If your injury is from repetitive use, it’s a sign that your plan was too aggressive,” St. Pierre explains. Take it slow and start with just a few miles per week to make sure your body feels OK with the movement. “Even if your symptoms are gone, your body needs to acclimate to running again,” says Heiderscheit.
Follow the general rule of upping your mileage by 10 percent each week. A run coach can also help adjust your plan to the severity of your injury and the time you spent off your feet.
“When someone returns to running too early, it interrupts the tissue remodeling process that’s part of healing and further delays recovery or worse, creates a chronic injury,” says Brough. Keep that in mind if you get sidetracked by one of these five common (and potentially serious) running injuries.
Common Running Injuries to Watch Out For
While this list can’t replace the expertise of an M.D., it can be a helpful starting point to help pinpoint aches and pains. Get the rundown for some of the most common injuries among pavement pounders here.
Runner’s Knee (or patellofemoral pain syndrome)
Associated with pain in the front of the knee around the kneecap, runner’s knee may require rest for a few weeks, depending on symptoms, intensity and frequency of pain. The discomfort is often due to weakness of muscles in the knee, hip and other joints, so muscle-building exercises, such as squats, could be a good line of defense. Foam rolling the IT band can sometimes speed up recovery, as well as icing to help reduce inflammation.
RELATED: Are You Foam Rolling All Wrong?
The plantar fascia is the ligament that connects your heel bone to your toes and supports your arch. Typically, this overuse injury leads to pain in the heel when you stand or walk. Repetitive stress and heavy loads can contribute to the pain, along with several other factors such as joint motion and flexibility. A PT will examine your ankle and foot, muscle flexibility (especially in the Achilles or calf muscles), and strength to determine your course of rehab.
Iliotibial (IT) Band Syndrome
The IT band stretches down the outside of the leg, from the hip to just below the knee joint. When irritated — usually due to overuse or a substantial increase in training, such as adding volume, speed, hills or challenging terrain — it can cause inflammation and pain in either the hip or knee (or both). Rest may be required as well as introducing a more thorough stretching, foam rolling and icing routine. Like all the injuries on this list, improved mobility, flexibility and muscle strength are key.
This widespread overuse injury can be acute or chronic, and is caused by inflammation of the tissue surrounding the Achilles tendon, degeneration of the tendon, or a combination of both. The treatment plan depends on specific symptoms, pain level, ankle motion and a variety of other factors. Sufferers will typically need to take time off from their usual workouts, and diligently follow the treatment plan provided by their PT.
This more serious injury often occurs due to rapidly increasing activity in a short period of time. It’s most likely to happen in the weight-bearing bones of the lower leg, foot or hip, after being subjected to a new source of stress, such high-impact exercises like running. The longer you wait for treatment, the worse the fracture can get, so seek attention immediately. Diagnosis will typically require a series of X-rays, and depending on the results, sufferers can expect to be off the track or treadmill for six to eight weeks. Can’t stand being sidelined? Trust your MD and remember: getting back to 100 percent is always worth the wait.