Smart ways to prevent running injuries – a physiotherapist’s tips

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Worried about injuring yourself during a run? Here’s how to minimise the risk of injuries according to Livi physiotherapist, Erik Nordlund

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Running may be one of the most popular forms of exercise in the world, but it’s also known for its risk of injuries – from shin splints to runner’s knee. Research shows that nearly half of runners experience injuries over the course of a year, with many of those occurring in the knee or Achilles tendon area.

‘It’s important to be aware of potential injuries so you can recognise your body’s signals if you’ve been overtraining,’ says Livi physiotherapist Erik Nordlund.

The good news is that by training carefully and listening to your body, it’s possible to protect yourself and prevent injuries next time you’re out running.

What are the most common running injuries?

Running injuries can affect anyone, from beginners to ultra-marathoners. The most common types of running injuries are:

  • Knee pain – Runner’s knee describes dull pain around the front of your knee or kneecap

  • Shin pain – This pain occurs at the front of your lower leg between your knee and ankle. Often referred to as shin splints or medial tibial stress syndrome, this pain can occur after putting too much stress on tendons, which become strained and torn. You’re more likely to get shin pain after running on hard surfaces

  • Achilles pain – Running can cause wear and tear to your Achilles tendon, which runs down the back of your lower leg to your heel

  • Heel and foot pain – Also known as plantar fasciitis or runner’s heel, this may cause you to feel pain or swelling around the heel and arch of your foot

  • Muscle strains – Running demands a lot from your hamstring muscles, sometimes causing pain in the backs of your thighs

‘These injuries aren’t usually caused by a one-off event – they come on gradually with regular running,’ explains Nordlund. ‘While running isn’t inherently bad for your joints, it’s important to adapt your training to avoid injuries.’

How can I prevent running injuries?

Here are some ways to lower your chances of running injuries.

1. Don’t do too much too soon

Build up the intensity and distance of your runs gradually. ‘If you’re a beginner, it’s better to increase the intensity of your runs slowly – the tissues in your legs and around the knees need time to build up,’ explains Nordlund.

Listen to your body, and slow down if you feel any pain or tightness.

‘Pain is a signal that something is wrong, and it’s never a good idea to ignore or push through it,’ Nordlund advises. ‘Follow the 10% rule – increase your training load by no more than 10% each week.’

2. Rest and recover

Overtraining increases your risk of overuse injuries. Getting enough rest gives your tissues and muscles a chance to repair between training sessions.

‘It’s during rest periods that your body gains strength and tissues become stronger,’ Nordlund explains. ‘The amount of time your body needs to recover between runs will vary. If your runs are longer and have a harder intensity, your resting period should be longer. If your runs are shorter and lower intensity, you’ll need less time.’

Getting some good quality sleep and fuelling your body with nutritious food is also crucial while you’re resting.

3. Always warm up and cool down

‘When you warm up, you prepare your body for movement by increasing blood flow to the right muscles, your coordination improves and you become more aware of your body,’ says Nordlund. ‘Warming up can also help you identify any pain in your body and whether you need to adapt your session.’

Instead of stretching in place, Nordlund suggests doing dynamic mobility movements as a warm-up, including:

  • Deep lunges – Keeping your back straight, place your hands on your hips to stay balanced and engage your core muscles. Take a large step back or forwards, and bend your knee until your thigh is parallel to the floor. Do this slowly, so you also feel a little stretch in your hip flexors. Do 10 reps of deep lunges on each leg.

  • Squats – Start standing with feet hip-width apart. Keep your back straight and shoulders back. Tighten your core and slowly drive your hips back, bending at the knees and sitting into a squat position. Do 10 reps.

Similarly, cooling down after a run helps your recovery by allowing your body to return to its normal state. ‘It’s important to run slowly or walk for the last 3-4 minutes,’ Nordlund says.

4. Mix in some strengthening exercises

Incorporating strength-training exercises into your running schedule can also protect you from injury. One study found that Brazilian runners who participated in a foot and ankle strengthening programme reduced their risk of injuries by almost 60% compared to the group who didn’t strength train.

‘Running is repetitive and many injuries are often due to overuse – an injury that occurs in a joint or muscle due to repetitive trauma,’ says Nordlund. ‘But if you do strengthening exercises, you help the body to become stronger. Exercises like lunges with weights, deadlifts or squats will strengthen your muscles and tissues, helping you run with greater control and stability.’

5. Invest in supportive running shoes

Comfortable and supportive footwear for injury prevention. For the best results, get fitted in a specialist running shop. ‘They’ll be able to advise you on the best trainers for the shape of your feet,’ says Nordlund.

‘If you’re a beginner, running shoes are especially important to support your feet as you get used to running. If you’re a long-distance runner, you’ll need a shoe that gives you a lot of support.’

6. Fine-tune your running form

Improving your running form helps you run more comfortably and efficiently. It also means putting less stress on your body and reducing your risk of injury.

Stand straight and tall and keep your ears in line with your shoulders. ‘Make sure you’re not leaning back on your heels or too far forward from the waist,’ says Nordlund. Relax your shoulders and hands and let your arms swing naturally – your hands should be nearly grazing the sides of your hips.

7. Stay active between runs

On days you’re not running, you can still stay physically active. Low-impact activities that don’t add any stress to your joints are best. ‘Training hard then sitting for extended amounts of time isn’t ideal for the body,’ says Nordlund. ‘A light walk, swim or bike ride can help your body recover.’

When should I see a doctor?

If you’ve hurt yourself running and it isn’t getting better over time after trying simple remedies at home, speak to a doctor or a physiotherapist. It’s a good idea to book an appointment if:

  • You have severe pain or swelling in a joint or bone
  • You have numbness, tingling or weakness in the affected area
  • You’re unable to stand on or move the injured area

This article was reviewed by Livi physiotherapist Erik Nordlund.

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