Advice for runners: don't overdo it

One of the inescapable ironies of running is that an activity so keenly pursued for health benefits can cause debilitating physical injury.

Those injuries, often affecting knees and ankles, can strike far more than an unfortunate few.

Studies show that the incidence of running injuries can affect roughly one-third to one-half of all runners, according to statistics provided by Cara Humphreys, a physiotherapist with Kamloops Physiotherapy and Sports Injury Centre.

Other studies suggest an even higher incidence - up to 85 per cent. And it's not necessarily a simple matter of healing. Anywhere from 20 to 70 per cent of problems are recurring injuries.

"We see a lot of running injuries in our clinic," Humphreys said.

It's no coincidence that she was invited to speak to the Kamloops Ridge Runners on the subject a couple of years ago. A little knowledge will go a great distance if a runner can prevent injuries from the starting line.

Beginners are particularly vulnerable if they fail to train properly or dismiss recurring pain without seeking help. The old training adage, "run till it hurts," can be a risky practice if taken literally.

Runner's knee - also known as patello-femoral pain syndrome - is probably the most common injury, Humphreys said. Next in frequency is iliotibial band friction syndrome, which is expressed in knee pain as well.

Shin splints affect the front of the lower leg and are caused by the muscle becoming inflamed or pulling way from the bone.

Plantar fascitis and Achilles tendinopathy are injuries affecting the foot and ankle respectively. The first is an irritation of the plantar fascia, which connects the heel to the front of the foot. The latter is an inflammation or breakdown of the tissue attaching calf muscles to the heel.

"A lot of these are over-use injuries - over-training or progressing in mileage too quickly," she said.

These, combined with a previous running injury or less running experience, are the primary causes of injuries.

For experienced runners, higher mileage is the No. 1 risk factor. Other contributing factors may be running on cambered or hard surfaces, running hills or using inappropriate footwear.

Treatment varies considerably, depending on the injury and its severity, and can range from rest and ice packs to physiotherapy.

To prevent such injuries, Humphreys recommends:

p Gradually increasing mileage.

p Cautiously progressing to more than 32 kilometres per week.

p Wearing shock-absorbing, comfortable footwear to prevent stress fractures (although research on the role of footwear in injury prevention is inconclusive).

p Staying aware of body alignment and onset of fatigue when running.

As well, menstrual cessation in women, which is associated with low body fat, can be a risk factor for osteoporosis and stress fracture, Humphrey noted.

Stretching before exercising, once thought to be a safeguard against injury, lacks research showing a clear link. Some professionals advise stretching at other times rather than before and after.

Beginners need to be aware if they are flat-footed or they are over-pronating or rolling with their feet, a tendency that can lead to injuries.

"They might not realize before they start."

One of the latest trends is barefoot running, which is touted as a more natural approach. Humphreys advises runners to tread carefully, however.

"With the whole barefoot running thing, I think the research isn't clear yet. Yes, our feet are designed to run around barefoot, but we're not necessarily used to it. People need to be careful. That's not to say it's a bad idea."

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