Sunday, May 18, 2008

How to Avoid Running Injuries

An inevitable part of the running experience is injuries, fearing them and getting them. Treating injuries sucks, mostly because it's hard to figure out whether there's really an injury beyond normal aches and pains. After all, pain is part of the deal with running. A good rule of thumb is whether the discomfort is localized (ie, not a general soreness over an area) and affects the stride. If it does, time to treat it.

Prevention is obviously the best cure. I get asked how I avoid injuries. After all, I run a lot -- probably 1,500 miles a year -- frequently on hard surfaces. Plenty of people have predicted knee and hip replacements in my future. Up until now -- knock on wood -- I've fared alright. Here are my commonsense tips for avoiding running injuries.

1. Efficiency. Yes, we're all born to run. I was reminded of this again when in Cincinnati for the marathon. My friend Tom, who tried to poison me with jambalaya, has a daughter about 18 months old. She's just starting to walk. Elena's impulse, though, is to run. But just because running is natural doesn't mean it doesn't require thought. Running is hard on the body. Your body weight comes crashing down on joints and tendons with each stride. Even Lance has said how hard running is because of the pounding. The best way to mitigate the trauma: lower the force. You do this by paradoxically taking shorter strides. Look at the best runners and you'll find they're very economical. The goal is to have your feet off the ground for as little time as possible. Aim for short strides. Don't bounce. Repeat: never bounce. It also helps not to carry around a lot of weight.

2. Soft Surfaces. There are many great parts of living in New York City. One of the downsides is the dearth of running trails. I still try to do as many miles as possible on softer surfaces, dirt paths in Riverside or the Bridle Path in Central Park. The softer the surface, the less trauma. A modest proposal: We turn the golf courses into runner parks.

3. Stretching. Yeah, there's a school of thought that stretching is actually bad for you. Don't buy it. Stretching done incorrectly is bad for you. Lots of people treat is like a battle, grimacing while yanking their leg is a direction it clearly doesn't want to go. Since I came down with a tendon injury three years ago, I've done Active-Isolated Stretching. It's really helped me improve my flexibility, which was never great and became more constricted with all the miles. The principles of AIS are that the key to stretching is to isolate a muscle and apply quick (two seconds) pressure to slowly increase the range of motion. There's a rope involved. A father-son duo put on a class about it for the New York Road Runners.

4. Core Strength. My near-term goal for the summer is to get stronger. My upper-body strength is pretty pitiful, and it hurts me at the end of races. Injuries commonly happen when there's a set of muscles that's getting a lot more work than another set. (OK, this is a little outside my realm, but something like this is true, I'm sure.) There are lots of regimens for building strength. I do Pilates exercises in my apartment, a site the people across the way must love because it's typically shirtless after a run.

5. Patience. This is the hardest to follow. Lots of people fall in love with running. They're like your friend who meets a girl and all of a sudden is always over her place. That works out sometimes, but often ends up a mess. Lot of injuries happen when people try to do too much too soon. The marathonification of running has made this worse. Casual or non-runners decide they're running 26.2 because they had a four-mile run and it's a life goal. Running marathons is hard and the distance requires respect. I ran for two and a half years before training for a marathon. It wasn't the first race I'd run, but a gradual progression from four miles to five to 10K to a few halves. I realize there will always be "marathon tourists," the people who run for six or nine months to slog through 26.2 in five hours or so, like they're climbing the Eiffel Tower. That's pretty uninteresting to me, particularly if they don't stick with running. Doing marathons is just the byproduct of running as an essential part of a healthy lifestyle, not just physically but mentally.


Mark said...

Hi there,

Very interesting points. I am one of those non-runners who has decided to run a marathon without any experience whatsoever.

I take your point about patience but I'm going to do it anyway.

Brian Morrissey said...

Hey Mark,
I totally think you should do it. My hope is you'll use it as a way to make running a regular thing. I've seen lots of people just check the box, and I think there's so much more to running than a single race.

Best of luck w the training.


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