Whether for weight management, sport, recreation, comradery or charity, running has become a favorite pastime of many people around the world. In fact, due to its utter convenience and outright affordability, running is second only to walking as the most popular form of cardiovascular (cardio) exercise with over 50 million runners in the United States alone.
In spite of its popularity, running is indeed a high-impact activity that needs to be approached in a strategic manner, as habitually doing so can place excessive stress and strain on the joints leading to overuse injuries and other musculoskeletal problems. This holds particular true among individuals with underlying joint disorders or those who are new to running.
Still, if running is your preferred activity, as it is for millions of others including myself, here are five effective strategies for preventing these dreaded consequences.
Invest in Quality Shoes That Match Your Foot Type
Wearing the wrong types of running shoes can lead to unnecessary injury by placing undue stress on the joints and surrounding muscles. As such, it’s important to select shoes that are appropriate for your foot type. Feet are generally classified by one of three types: neutrally aligned (normal), pes cavus (raised or high arches), or pes planus (fallen arches or flat feet). People with neutrally aligned feet tend to run with natural “pronation”.
Pronation occurs when body weight is properly transferred from the heels to the forefoot causing the foot to roll inwards. Runners with pes cavus have a tendency to “underpronate” which essentially means that all their weight is supported on the outer edges of the feet. Symptoms of underpronation can manifest themselves as aches and sharp pains in the area of the foot between the toes and ankles.
If you have pes cavus, it’s important to choose shoes that offer superior arch support with just enough give to encourage natural foot flexion during running.
Pes planus is essentially the opposite of pes cavus, as it is characterized by excessive pronation (“overpronation”). Extreme overpronation during running can adversely affect the body’s overall alignment, largely due to its negative impact on the knee joint. In fact, “Runner’s Knee” (pain around the knee cap) is the most common overuse injury among runners with flat feet.
If your feet are naturally flat, opt for running shoes with a firm, thick heel counter for adequate support in this area. It’s also important that the sole underneath the arch of the foot is rigid yet somewhat flexible with adequate cushioning.
Regardless of your foot type, it’s important to replace your shoes after 300-400 miles of running for maximal protection against joint injury. Individuals with pes cavus will notice the first signs of wear on the outer edges of running shoes while those with pes planus (and oftentimes neutrally aligned feet) will display uneven wearing on shoes.
Incorporate a Dynamic Warm-Up Prior to Running
The best warm-up to perform before a run is one that involves dynamic range of motion exercises specifically targeting your lower body muscle groups (glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, and calves). Such a warm up could include a combination of slow jogging/brisk walking, calisthenics and/or dynamic stretches lasting for 10-15 minutes.
When it comes to dynamic stretching movements you can perform toe and heel walks to warm up the calves in addition to forward, reverse and lateral (side-to-side) walking lunges for the glutes, hamstrings, and quadriceps. Other effective options include alternating groiners, Frankensteins, and hip swings.
As implied by their name “groiners” serve to warm up the muscles of the groin (between the abdomen and the thighs), which are especially vulnerable to overuse injuries (pulls or strains) among runners. To perform groiners, simply jump to a lunge from a pushup position while keeping your body in a straight line from your heels to your head on the floor.
To perform Frankensteins, stand tall with your feet about shoulder-width apart, step forward with your left foot and then kick your right leg in the air as high as possible while keeping it straight. When your leg is at its highest point, reach forward with your left hand to meet your right foot and then repeat the sequence with your left foot and right hand. You can then perform hip swings by still standing tall but holding on to a stable surface so that you can continuously swing one leg back and forth as high as you comfortably can.
For a good warm-up before a long run, perform each of the above dynamic stretching movements for 1-3 sets of 10-20 repetitions.
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