No runner wants to deal with pain, but it comes with the sport. As a runner, you know that physical pain from sore muscles, overuse injuries, poor foot strike or other common strains often rears its head at the most inopportune times. In honor of Global Running Day, check out our runner’s guide to prevent pain to help you get back on the pavement faster.
Runner’s pain 101
Injuries happen. Whether we’re injury prone and trip over our feet at the starting line or we overtrain and face strains and tears in the middle of a race, all runners feel pain.
That pain doesn’t care how badly we want to improve our form. It doesn’t care that we’ve got our training schedules down to a science. And it doesn’t care that we wake up and smell a PR in that morning’s race.
All it wants us to do is stop running. It is happy to be the enemy of every runner and can quickly lead us to doubt, worry, overtrain or undertrain. It can also lead us to long bouts of recovery if we don’t strive to outsmart it.
Top 4 common running pains
We can catch most injuries before they become more serious if we listen to our bodies and adjust our training accordingly. Remember: you don’t have to follow a training schedule to the letter of the law. It’s perfectly normal – and expected – to make adjustments as needed and to grow from there.
In this runner’s guide to prevent pain, let’s look at 4 of the most common running pains that dare to keep us off the pavement (and the hills, tracks, trails or treadmills):
#1) Hip pain
Hip flexors are a collection of muscles that allow you to move your leg or knee up towards your torso. These muscles also allow you to bend forward at the hip. It’s quite easy for runners to strain these muscles when you move suddenly.
Tendinitis can set in when tendons become irritated. This causes inflammation as well as pain and tenderness around your hip joints. It’s common to experience such pain when you:
- add mileage to your runs
- increase your speed
- run on hills
How to prevent hip pain
- Do a proper warm-up before running. This includes a variety of movements that specifically target your hips.
- Include strength training as part of your regular workout routine.
- Focus on strengthening exercises that target not only your hips but also your core and your glutes. These muscles collaborate to help you get stronger, run faster, provide balance and avoid injury.
- When you notice pain, address it immediately. We all push ourselves as runners, but it’s important to recognize when your body needs a rest day.
- Work on proper running form.
- Invest in supportive shoes that absorb shock.
- Do a proper cool-down as well. Make sure to hold each stretch for at least 30 seconds.
Looking for hip flexor stretches? Check out this video:
How to treat hip pain
- Rest: Give your body some time to rest. Adjust your running schedule now to ensure your injury doesn’t get worse. Taking time off can actually help you run stronger and recover faster.
- Ice: Apply a reusable ice pack to the affected area for 15-20 minutes. This will help alleviate pain and reduce swelling in your muscles. Repeat this every 3-4 hours over the next few days.
- Compression: Try wearing compression shorts or wrapping the affected area lightly with a bandage. This will help you manage further swelling.
- Elevation: Further reduce the chance of swelling by elevating your leg as often as possible. Make sure it’s higher than your heart.
#2) Stress fractures
That nagging (yet sometimes vague) pain you feel at the top of your foot may be a stress fracture. This type of fracture is due to tiny cracks in the bone caused by repetitive force and overuse. Just the mere mention of cracks in the bone is scary enough. But there is another reason this is one of the most feared injuries in running: it can easily mean a 6 week (or more!) recovery time.
Although anyone can develop a stress fracture, it’s common to experience this type of pain if you:
- run long distances
- start a new running program without proper preparation
- are preparing for your first marathon
- have a high longitudinal arch of the foot and leg-length inequality
How to prevent stress fractures
- Adjust your training gradually. Whether it be how often you run, how fast you run or how far you run, amp up slowly. Rule of thumb: runners looking to increase their mileage typically do so by only 10% per week.
- Use the proper running form. This includes paying attention to your foot strikes.
- Include cross-training in your running program.
- Watch out when changing running surfaces. Manage your transition from the treadmill to the pavement or from the pavement to the trails carefully.
Learn more about taking steps to prevent stress fractures here:
How to treat stress fractures
- Reduce or pause your training depending on the severity of your pain.
- Stay off the affected foot as much as possible. Talk to your doctor about when you are allowed to bear normal weight on the foot again.
- Ice the affected foot up to 4 times a day for 15-20 minutes at a time. This will help you alleviate pain and reduce the chance of swelling.
- Talk to your sports medicine doctor about crutches or a walking boot to move about.
- Get back to your training schedule slowly and only after you get approval from your doctor. Start with low weight-bearing activities before building back up to running.
If your stress fracture is severe, your health care team may recommend surgery.
#3) Shin splints
Shin splints typically occur when runners try to take on too much. Be it an intensity in miles, speed or frequency, an increase in activity before our bodies are properly prepared can easily leave our muscles overworked.
If you experience sore muscles, tenderness and/or swelling along your shinbone, it is most likely shin splints. You may notice that once you stop running, the pain goes away. But if it’s not treated and your body is not given time to recover, it will likely come back. It may even get worse.
How to prevent shin splints
- Increase your mileage at a gradual pace. While we runners are known to train hard, it’s important to recognize your limits. Shin splints are an overuse injury. Don’t run a training schedule by the letter of the law if it means not allowing yourself time to rest and recover.
- Invest in quality running shoes. Cushioning matters. Your running shoes should be able to provide proper cushioning and stability. Rule of thumb: replace your running shoes every 300-400 miles.
- Be sure to properly stretch and strengthen your calf muscles. Weak calves can trigger shin splints.
- Run on soft surfaces. Transition slowly to tougher ones.
- Try out some insoles for your shoes. This will help to elevate your arch and decrease your chance of shin splints.
How to treat shin splints
- Reduce your mileage, increase your rest time and ice your shin.
- Wear compression sleeves.
- Take NSAIDs for the pain and inflammation.
- Repair your running form. This includes focusing on your heel strike and avoiding overpronation.
- Cross-train and stretch. This is vital to your success as a runner and to your recovery from shin splints. It helps to reduce the amount of stress your legs endure while strengthening them at the same time.
Check out the benefits of compression sleeves here:
#4) Runner’s knee
Knee pain is annoying to anyone. But to runners, it is something we often grin and bear when we shouldn’t. Runner’s knee describes several painful conditions around the kneecap. It’s an overuse injury that often afflicts athletes, but can affect anyone.
When you have runner’s knee, you can expect to feel a dull pain where your knee connects with the lower end of your thighbone.
How to prevent runner’s knee
- Include leg strengthening exercises in your workout routine. Be sure to target your thigh muscles.
- Do a proper warm-up before each run and before each workout.
- Wear supportive shoes.
- Avoid making aggressive changes to your training intensity. Amp things up slowly.
- Train with compression sleeves to help prepare your knees.
How to treat runner’s knee
- Rest and ice your knee as needed. Aim for at least 15-20 minutes with ice on the affected knee every few hours.
- Wrap your knee in a light bandage or compression sleeve to help alleviate the pain and provide an extra layer of support.
- Take NSAIDs to help reduce inflammation.
- Slowly amp up your muscle strengthening exercises once you have properly rested. Be sure to target your quadriceps.
Learn more about managing runner’s knee here:
The bottom line: running and injury prevention
As runners, it’s unlikely we’ll live injury free. The pain comes with the territory.
Also, common running injuries don’t just cause physical pain. They can affect your mental and emotional game as well. From sacrificing sleep for those sunrise runs, stressing over your achievements, worrying if you’ll get that PR, changing your social calendar to fit in runs and cross training, running issues more than its fair share of challenges.
However, you can follow the guidance in this runner’s guide to prevent pain and:
- train your body to run with proper form and with adequate preparation
- train your mind to push through the discomfort but not ignore the pain
- take gradual steps to progress in the sport you love
- be prepared to manage pain as it comes
What tips would you include in a runner’s guide to prevent pain?
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Pain management starts and ends with health awareness and dedication. Click here to read more.