How to Avoid Injury as You Start a Running or Walking Program



~By Amie King, PT


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Ahhhh…. Finally, finally, FINALLY Spring has come to Chicago!!   After so many months of brutal temperatures keeping most of us inside, we can’t help but want to get out and enjoy the warmer weather.   This is a perfect opportunity to get more active as well, and many people get motivated to start running or walking for exercise around this time of year.  This is admirable, and if you are one who is motivated, we want to help you get out there and do it well (read:  injury-free)!  As a runner myself, I feel it can be a wonderful way to enjoy nature, be fit, and even manage stress!  You surely don’t have to be a 4-minute miler, or marathoner to receive any of those benefits. 

Unfortunately, I have seen it countless times in my years of practice as a physical therapist…. And that is: well-intentioned individuals who start running or walking, only to develop a nagging pain that lands them right back on the couch, feeling worse than when they started!  There are a number of reasons that can contribute to this, most all of which can be avoided if you just know what to do. 

First, running (or walking) is not just about legs, and heart rate.  Though your legs are obviously what propel you and actually DO the running, I would argue what deserves attention first, and what is more important is the “CORE” – that stable base you need to have for the legs to move off of effectively.  An article was written in this blog previously about what the core is, and there are hundreds of books, blogs and exercise videos dedicated to core strengthening… so that is not the scope of this article to address.  But know that it IS important to get informed and start focusing on strengthening your core, if you want to run pain free.   Research has shown that many back, hip and knee injuries can be linked to poor core strength. 

Second, we need to remember that our bodies are unique.  Some of us have flat feet, or pronate (flatten) once our weight distributes fully onto our foot, while others have high arches… Some of us have genu valgus, the fancy name for “knock knees”, while others have genu varus, which is “bow-legged”… Some have a flatter spine, while others have an increased lumbar lordosis, or “sway back”.  The list goes on, and the point is that we need to LISTEN to our bodies and support our bodies in their unique make up.  This means everything from finding the right pair of shoes to sticking to distances that your body can handle.  A good pair of running or walking shoes that is right for your feet is extremely important.   There are many good running stores that will assess your gait and make the proper recommendation.  Once you have the right shoes, keep in mind your uniqueness as you move on to number three.

Third, determine what your goal is.  Do you just want to get fit and enjoy the fresh air (that is why I run, now!),  do you want to run your best in a 5k, join a running club, or do you want to complete a full marathon (that is why I used to run!)?   From both my professional and personal experience, long distance running/marathons are not for everyone.  Again, your unique body structure just might not be physically able to withstand the tens of thousands of pounding steps required in marathon training.  Good core strength and the right shoes will help any runner be able to withstand more, but “more” is still different for everyone.  Listen to your body.  Starting too quickly, or going too far is what leads to injury.  There are many great training schedules on the internet and in books for different distance goals.  If you are just beginning, and wanting to run, a training schedule that I recommend is as follows (this is, of course, after doing some focused core strengthening):  Five out of seven days of the week for each of the following:  Week one – Walk 5 minutes, run 2, for 4 rounds, then end with a 2 minute cool down walk (which you will do for all of the weeks following).  Week two – walk 4 minutes, run 3, for 4 rounds, with the same 2 minute cool down walk.  Week three – walk 3 minutes, run 4 for 4 rounds.  Week four – walk 2 minutes, run for 5, for 4 rounds.  Week five – walk for a 2 minute warm up, then run for 7 minutes, alternating with a walk for 1 minute for 4 rounds, and still finish with a cool down walk.  Starting at week 6, and beyond, always start with a 2-5 minute warm up, and then increase your running time by 1-2 minutes, alternating with a 1 minute walk, and then cool down with another 2-5 minute walk.  There are some schools of thought out there that all runners should alternate running and walking to avoid overuse injuries.  This is where your goal will dictate how you want to continue:  do you want to speed up your running intervals, or do you want to increase your running endurance with less frequent (or no) walking? 

Always, be flexible with your training.  If your body is asking for a day off, listen to it, and be kind to it.  Come in for a free consultation if you have any questions or issues about what you may be feeling.   And enjoy getting out there!

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