Regardless of your ability, speed or body shape, the greatest challenge almost all runners face—especially beginners—is staying healthy. By the very nature of the aerobic benefits running provides, we are certainly healthier than our sedentary counterparts, but runners tend to pick up all sorts of niggling injuries.
Usually our injuries aren’t too serious, but even the minor ones tend to slow us down. Fortunately, most of the common running injuries can be avoided if you follow the rules of healthy, injury-free running. At least, my rules.
1. Stretch after every run.
Running tends to shorten and tighten the primary running muscles of the legs, hips and back. Over time, the muscles contract and if this happens enough, you will get injured. Guaranteed.
Conventional wisdom used to suggest you stretch before you run. Baloney. Stretch after each and every run. I’ll say it again: Stretch after every run when the muscles are warm and pliable. Try to stretch within 10 minutes of completing every run.
Consistent, proper stretching is what counts. Set up a routine of stretching all the major muscle groups—primarily the hamstrings, quadriceps, hip flexors, Achilles and calf muscles—and devote at least 15 minutes of stretching each and every day, even more if you’re an older runner.
If you don’t know how to stretch properly, join a yoga class. There are dozens of yoga classes in Austin at health clubs and yoga studios that cater to runners. A qualified instructor will show you the proper poses, how to hold them and what to do. Once you learn the poses and stretches, practice them. They aren’t complex.
2. Wear a high-quality running shoe which you replace every 300-350 miles with a new pair.
It is absolutely essential to your running health that you buy a quality running shoe which fits your feet and gait cycle. To find that shoe, you must go to a running specialty store. If you’re in Austin, try any of the great Austin stores, such as Luke’s Locker, Rogue, Ready to Run or Texas Running Company. There is no other reliable way to get the proper shoe for you than to get examined and fitted.
Once you have that right shoe, stick with it. Don’t buy the latest shoe with all the cool gizmos just because your friends like them.
But even the best running shoe will wear out over time and lose its ability to cushion and support the foot. Once that happens, it’s time to buy a new pair. Any delay in replacing a worn out shoe places you at risk for injury.
When is a shoe worn out? Impossible to say. Each shoe, each runner is different, and the maximum mileage you can get out of a shoe differs greatly. Suffice it to say, a good pair of running shoes should last at least 300 miles and as long as 500-600. Some runners get more; some less.
How can you tell when your shoes are shot? Again, there’s no set answer, but once you begin to notice on a normal easy run abnormal aches and pains (due to reduced cushioning) it’s time to consider getting a new pair. Monitor how your body feels and think back to when you bought the shoes. A runner who covers 25 miles per week will generally begin to notice a lack of cushioning after three months of normal wear.
Better yet, mark on your training log when you bought the shoes and first began training in them. Or mark the date on the tongue of your shoes when you first started running in them. Calculate your miles per week (that’s why it helps to keep a training log) and multiply those miles by the weeks you’ve been running in a particular pair. If the mileage approaches 300, it’s time to consider buying a new pair within the next few weeks. If the mileage exceeds 4-500, buy a new pair immediately.
To extend shoe life, don’t wear your running shoes around town or for walking, tennis, basketball or aerobics, or you’ll reduce the mileage you can get. Best bet is to only wear your primary pair of running shoes for running. And it’s much better to replace a pair of shoes a little too early than too late.
3. Walk in, walk out.
Every run should start and finish with a walk. Whether you’re leaving for a run from your front door or running around Lady Bird Lake Trail, begin every run by walking a couple of minutes. When finished, do the same thing.
Walking accomplishes a few things. It’s a brief transition from being at rest to moving (running). During this short walk, check out my various aches and pains, warm up your legs, adjust shoelaces and determine if you’ll need to add or shed any clothes before taking off.
The walk out is a little different, longer and more enjoyable. Loosen your shoes, take off your sunglasses, cool off a bit, grab a water and bask in the endorphin rush of yet another satisfying run. It’s a moment or two to celebrate a good run by enjoying the sweat, the effort and the glorious day.
4. Avoid sidewalks.
Austin’s sidewalks are hard, cracked and full of pedestrians. They are an awful place to run. Sidewalks are made out of concrete, and concrete is so hard (eight times harder than asphalt) that—over time—it will crush your legs. No surface is worse. Avoid sidewalks at all costs. If you have to drive a short distance to avoid the sidewalks, it’s worth it in the long run.
The best surface for running is a smooth, dirt trail such as our Butler Trail around Lady Bird Lake. But there are plenty of other good running trails around Austin in parks and neighborhoods.
5. Uphills are great; downs are not.
There’s no question that hills are an integral part of any runner’s training program. Hills provide quick results in terms of building strength and power. That is, the uphills do. The downhills don’t.
Obviously, uphills are much harder to run than the flats or downhills. The problem with running down the backside of a hill is it places plenty of stress on your back, knees and shins. The pounding of a downhill is a killer. And since there isn’t much of a training effect going down, it makes good sense to gently ease your way down. Or even easier: Walk the steepest parts to save wear and tear on your body. Especially when doing repeats on some of Austin’s steepest and most formidable hills, ease your way down the hills.
6. Ice is cool.
One of the greatest masters runners was a New Zealander by the name of Jack Foster. Jack died several years ago, but at one point he was the fastest masters marathoner in the world. And his “secret” was that he finished every run by hosing down his legs with icy water drawn from a deep well. Foster said that’s what horse trainers do for their thoroughbreds after every workout and race. He theorized, “If it’s good enough for horses, it’s good enough for me.”
Too right. An icy, cold compress applied right after you run and stretch reduces the muscular inflammation that results from any run. Left unchecked, this inflammation can worsen into a full blown muscular strain or tear. Ice keeps the inflammation under control. Boston Marathon champ Meb Keflezighi jumps into an ice bath after every hard workout to reduce inflammation.
It doesn’t matter what you choose to use as long as you use something—ice cubes in a plastic baggie, ice baths, commercial frozen gels, frozen veggie packages—to ice your legs within a few minutes of stretching and running. Or just spray your legs with cold water from a garden hose for a few minutes while watering your plants and vegetables.
7. Take one day off a week.
Writing a zero down in your training log can be a good thing. The type of dedication where you never miss a day of running can be self-destructive, especially if you dutifully slog out a few miles just to avoid having to write a zero in your training log.
My buddy, Brigham Young University coach Ed Eyestone never trained on Sunday during his great career because of church and family obligations (he has six daughters) and because his body needed a rest. So does yours.
8. Run by time, not miles.
Here’s a newsflash: Your body doesn’t know the difference between a five-mile run and a 45-minute run. You might think there’s a difference, but your body doesn’t recognize any distinction. Here’s the problem: We’re addicted to mileage. What sounds better? My GPS says I went for a long run of 20 miles or I went for a three-hour run? Of course, we’ll say the 20-miler and then write it down in our logs.
But thinking in terms of miles is counterproductive because we tend to become obsessed with the weekly and monthly mileage totals as if that is an end in itself. It isn’t. Getting in great running shape and staying healthy is the goal, not padding our training logs with impressive mileage totals.
9. Pause that refreshes.
Many of us grew up in the era when football and basketball coaches refused to allow players to drink during practice. The belief was that not drinking somehow made players tougher. Unfortunately, such ignorance didn’t make them tougher; it made some players dead.
The same held true for running. Not any more. Now everyone recognizes the importance of proper hydration in football—and running. We have Dr. Robert Cade of the University of Florida to thank for that. He developed Gatorade (named after the Florida Gators) and as coaches, football players and runners now know, a properly hydrated athlete is a better athlete.
You can take that another step. A properly hydrated runner is a healthier runner, especially older runners who are more susceptible to running injuries. As you age, the blood and oxygen supply to your muscles isn’t as good as when you were in your teens or early 20s. If you are dehydrated during or after a run, it can only aggravate the situation. That’s one reason older runners have more muscle strains, spasms and pulls as they age. They’re dehydrated. Drink up.
10. Have fun.
This is a no-brainer. If running isn’t fun, enjoyable or at least a satisfying experience, why even bother? Sure we all want to stay healthy, fit and trim but you can accomplish that on a stationary bike or treadmill in a health club. But that’s drudgery rather than fun.
Having said that, running isn’t quite as high on the adrenaline-rush, fun scale as say, snowboarding. Or kite surfing or wake boarding. Or street luge.
Running’s different. A good run, a completed marathon gives you a sense of accomplishment, an inner glow, a feeling that you’ve done something for yourself and only yourself.
Nothing else can duplicate that feeling.