Why You Need to be Careful About Pandemic Runs

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Are you a long-time runner who’s upped that training schedule since your gym closed? Or did you use the initial COVID-19 shut downs as an excuse to discover this sport? Listen, I get it. We’ve all changed up our routines during this pandemic (heck, my wife and I finally cracked and got the kids a dog.) And, in terms of health, kicking up your cardio routine is a great choice—especially if your other choices were baking and eating the fruit of your sourdough starter. Every. Single. Day.

But I must insert a cautionary warning into my support of your new running habit. Please, please, please ease into your routines, or slowly increase your miles/pace/frequency of runs. If you slowly build up your fitness routines, you may just come out of this pandemic meeting those once-sidelined fitness goals. If you reach too hard, too quickly, however, I’m afraid we’ll end up meeting in my office (or over a Telemedicine appointment) because you’ve sustained a running-related overuse injury. Want to avoid that outcome? Let’s explore the safest ways to build your running stamina.

What is an Overuse Injury? At home workouts and shut down runs can be safe, if you go slowly

Your body works best when all your muscles share the burden of your daily routines. And, when you give one part of your body, like your legs, through hard work, that muscle group needs rest afterwards to heal any minor damage and come back bigger, better and stronger. In fact, that’s how we build muscle through workouts like runs or weight lifting.

But, when you do the same movement every day, you keep putting undue pressure on one or more of your body’s muscle groups. What’s more, you deny that area of your body the rest it needs to heal any minor damage. As a result, you heap pressure on tired muscles; and tiny tears that are a normal part of an exercise routine may become larger, leading to pain and injury.

Runners are very prone to overuse injuries. They love to run every day. They’re often too busy to stretch. And, for the most part, they’re always trying to beat their best times. Or up their mileages. It’s a lot of go, go, go with not enough stops. Or cross training.

This is a problem for seasoned runners who push too hard. But I also see lots of new runners in my office, even ones who are already in great shape. And they’ve managed to get hurt even after a short run, ranging from one mile or less.  Why do small, new movements sometimes lead to big problems? Here’s the story.

New Types of Movement Put More Pressure on Your Body

Even if you’re in great shape, and took a yoga or kickboxing class every single day before your gym closed, you could still get hurt if you don’t start a running program cautiously. That’s because your body isn’t yet used to this type of movement. So running one mile for the first time could be just as taxing on your body as a 10-mile jog would be for a veteran runner.

So, how can you stay safe while easing into a new sport? The key is to start simply and slowly work your way to harder workouts. What that means, in practical terms, is this: if you haven’t jogged since your high school gym class, set a goal of running for five minutes straight, at a slow pace, three times a week on your first week. (Making sure to space out your running days.)

If your body feels good after those runs, and you don’t experience the type of stabbing-pain which suggests an injury, you can increase your running time by one or two minutes the following week. Again, if your body feels great, feel free to gradually increase your running time, distance or speed each new week. But if you find a new pace or distance extremely challenging, stick with that goal until it feels comfortable (and remember, there’s no shame in returning to a previous week’s goal. Or taking a week off to care for your body and let it heal.) Follow these guidelines and you’re likely to safely reach your running goals. Push too hard, however, and you may end up with one of these common overuse running injuries.

Which Injuries Should Runners Worry About? 

Shin splints and Achilles tendinitis are two overuse injuries that bring so many runners into my office.

One of the most painful and frustrating injuries of the foot and ankle involves pain in the back of the foot and ankle. The pain is often caused by an inflammation of the Achilles tendon, known as Achilles tendinitis. The Achilles tendon is a very strong tendon in the leg that connects the calf muscles to the heel bone. It is responsible for the movement of the foot and ankle in running, walking, and all other sports.

Shin splints is one of the most common running injuries. It’s an irritation on the front of your lower leg that develops when your lower leg muscles begin pulling on your tibia (shin bone), causing pain, swelling and soreness. This overuse injury sets in when your leg muscles get overworked by the repetitive impact of a certain action (like running.)

Achilles tendinitis is another common runner’s overuse injury, caused by excessive pulling of your tendon. I see a lot of tendinitis cases in new runners, but it’s also a problem for veterans who don’t take a break between training sessions. The Achilles tendon is a very strong tendon in your leg; it connects your calf muscles to your heel bone, and it’s responsible for allowing your foot and ankle to walk, run or participate in other sports. When given proper rest, your Achilles tendon works just fine. But when you overload that tendon pressure, you can develop inflammation—and lots of pain.

What Should I Do about Overuse Injuries? 

If you’re a new runner, or just upped your training, and you are in pain: take a break from running. Right away. Odds are high that you’ve developed an overuse injury. Out your feet up when possible, practice RICE (rest, ice, compression and elevation) and wait a few days to see if your pain clears up.

If it does, you can safely resume your training, as long as the pain doesn’t come back when you move. To protect yourself from future problems, you may want to invest in a pair of custom orthotics, since flat (overpronated) feet can contribute to injuries like Achilles tendinitis.

And if the pain doesn’t clear up in a day or two? It’s time to see your podiatrist. Our offices are open now to see you, and we also offer remote appointments via Telemedicine if that’s more to your liking. The point is this: if you’ve used your shut down time to get fit or fitter, that’s awesome. But don’t use the shut down as an excuse to ignore an injury. That will only set you up for fitness setbacks and long-term pain and complications.

Dr. Andrew Schneider
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Dr. Andrew Schneider is a podiatrist and foot surgeon at Tanglewood Foot Specialists in Houston, TX.
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