Why do runners get injured?
There is a perception that runners get injured all the time. There are online jokes in the running community that a runner is either; injured, recovering from injury or about to get injured. When talking to non runners about running and racing the first response is along the lines of; running is bad for your knees or isn’t too much running bad for you?
I have to disagree! Our bodies have been honed over millennia to run, walk, climb and move every day (not to sit on your bum eating cake). My theory is that it’s not the running that’s bad for you, it’s what else you do and don’t do in your day that either improves or compromise your body and how it functions.
Unless you are a full time, professional athlete, lets face it you spend more time in your day working or doing other stuff than you do training. One hour of hard training at the end of a day full of different, repetitive movements, poor posture or sitting at a desk will not undo the negative impacts of those things. In fact it’s likely that those things will have negative impacts on your running.
For example being seated all day, at a desk, driving etc, will gradually cause your hip flexors to shorten. This in turn weakens the hamstrings and glutes. This will eventually cause poor hip and lower back control. This will lead to back pain and more “sideways” movements of your torso and legs as you run. This can have a knock on impact in other areas of your body; for example twisting forces that are not being controlled by your hips, as they should, being then start transferred to your knees which definitely aren’t built to twist!
If you carry your handbag or work bag on one shoulder, the muscles on that side will eventually shorten and become less flexible, other muscles will weaken as a result. This can restrict or cause imbalances in the movement of your arms when you run. Your arms act as a counter balance to your hips, so this imbalances ends up being transmitted elsewhere in the body.
To help this it’s useful to be aware of your posture, spend more time standing/upright than sitting and trying to avoid doing activities with only one side too often (swap sides if possible). Trying yoga and pilates classes (or free online videos!) can help raise your awareness or these idiosyncrasies and help start off the process of fixing them.
The body is a wonderfully adaptable piece of equipment, but that can sometimes work against you. If you have an injury the body will re organised what muscles do what to protect the injured area to allow it time to heal - which is great. The problem comes when that new movement pattern becomes the new normal and you don’t go back to your original way of moving. Imagine how many injuries, areas of pain and niggles you’ve had in your body and the list of little imbalances, inconsistencies and work-arounds your body still has in place to protect you.
It’s so easy to say but hard to do, let yourself heal before you start training again. Colds, illnesses and injuries need time to heal; usually for a lot longer after the main symptoms disappear. Many long term niggles and imbalances are cause by stressing an area of the body that hasn’t fully recovered.
Running may have been the cause of some injuries, but the bigger problem is doing a repetitive sport like running with a body that isn’t using the muscles for what they are designed to do. If, for example, you twisted your ankle once and your body has adapted the way your foot lands slightly to take pressure off the damaged muscles and tendons. Once the initial swelling of the injury has gone and the ankle feels fine you start running and put that foot and ankle through 100s and 1000s of high impact steps on a run the remaining tiny imbalance gets magnified and eventually becomes painful. The problem itself was already there, but running made it painful earlier. Arguable if you never really put that much stress through your foot and ankle you may never have noticed the imbalance or felt any pain.
Essentially running is a magnifying glass that asks big questions of your body, and if your body has underlying niggles or imbalances by running a lot you are more likely to both notice them. It’s also more likely for them to develop into bigger issues as you are asking more of a muscle or area of the body that it was designed to cope with.
Niggles and imbalances can be caused by running itself of course. The best way to reduce the likelihood or them building up and causing injury are two things every runner reads a lot about but rarely does; stretching and strength work! I can send you a guide to specific stretches for runners, but at a high level they need to cover some key areas;
Adductors (inside thigh muscles)
Hamstrings (back of thigh)
Quads (front of thigh)
Calves (lower leg)
Feet - more easily done sat down
Mobilising arms and trunk/back
Stretching will undo some of the knots and adhesions within the muscle and ease the muscles back into full length (they gradually shorten after each training session otherwise).
Strength work is a key area to help build up and activate muscles that are switched off or are underperforming in their role. What strength work to do is dependant on the way you run and your own strengths and weaknesses, so is best prescribed by a professional after a face to face session. A couple of common areas are the knees collapsing inwards due to poor hip control, exercises to target glutes like clams are good here. Runners knee can often be caused by your knee cap being pulled to one side due to your inner quad muscles being tighter and stronger than your outer one. So you need to stretch/release/massage the tight muscle and strengthen the weaker one.
The final thing to think about is the repetitive and high impact nature of running. Those two elements raise the injury risks associated with the sport, albeit the risks of traumatic injury from a fall/tackle etc are lower (hopefully!).
Getting the right shoes for you and running on a variety of different surfaces (especially off road) can help reduce the impact of each step. The other great way is to try running with a shorter stride and faster cadence. Are you one of those runners where your foot falls seems noisier than others? You are probably over striding and each landing will be transmitting a lot more force up your leg than it needs to (and you are actually putting the brakes on with each step reducing your speed). Think of fast and light feet.
For the repetitive nature of running, part of that is unavoidable when you train, especially for longer races. So instead think about training “smart”. Think of the aims of each run you do; long run to build endurance, speed work or tempo run to get faster, hill run to improve technique and learn to run efficiently up hills are great examples. If you are going for an easy or recovery run and the aims are to loosen out your legs, get the blood flowing to speed up recovery and repair then these results can be achieved with an easy bike ride, swim, elliptical trainer session for example to help reduce injury risk.
My final thought on this is possibly the most important. Training is only one part of becoming a faster runner or a runner who can go longer. After training you have to recover, and recover stronger to realise the benefits of the training you do. To recover fully you need enough time between sessions, sleep and good food with all the nutrients, vitamins and minerals to rebuild and repair your muscles and bones. Without everything your body needs to recover it will actually get weaker with training as the micro-damage caused by your training doesn’t get re-built stronger but builds up instead. We live lives now where it’s all go and seemingly always busy, so it can be hard to build these things into your routine but I promise you it will help not only your running but your overall health and wellbeing.
Run and recover well!