As we roll into Spring after one of the longest and coldest Boston winters, we runners no longer need to worry about our runs getting sabotaged by impromptu blizzards. We no longer have to pile on layers of clothing and pray that we won’t be too cold, or rip off layers mid-run, realizing it is much warmer than we thought. We no longer have to squeeze in boring treadmill workouts that leave our shins in pain and our knees aching. We finally can just lace up and begin our run. At this point, anything above 40 degrees is enough to get me out on the street in shorts and a t-shirt. And while I enjoy the freedom that comes with good running weather, I know there are serious precautions that need to be taken.
Up until this Winter I didn’t understand how important injury prevention was for runners. Having been a runner for almost seven years now, I barely thought twice about warming up, stretching, the shoes I was wearing, or the courses I was running. My main concern was to stay in shape, burn calories, and space out listening to my music. I didn’t realize the wear and tear of unknowingly mistreating my body would disable me from doing any of those things. This past January, the entire lower half of my right leg started to ache whenever I ran. Disregarding this thinking it would pass, I continued to run on it for another month until it got to the point where I couldn’t even flex or point my ankle. When I finally understood this wasn’t going to magically go away, I contacted a physical therapist. Right off the bat she gave me an immediate list of things she could tell I was doing wrong that brought me to this point. Here are some of things I learned that are essential to taking care of your body as you enjoy running outdoors:
Sneaker Choice: Yes, those neon orange training sneakers in the window may be the cutest sneaks you’ve ever seen, but they could very well be an immediate recipe for shin splints. Little did I know, the roots of my injury started from my poor choice in footwear. This ultimately led to shin splints that I ignored “because every runner deals when them, right?” Wrong. Wear the correct shoes to avoid unnecessary pounding. Go to a sports store with a footwear section that specializes in long distance running shoes. Marathon Sports and City Sports are two great choices. Running shoes are very different from every day sneakers. Training sneakers are designed to allow for significant range of motion to engage in every day activities and cross training, but running shoes have very specific padding and support to cushion your foot in the right places to avoid injury. Have a specialist watch you walk and run so they can recommend the best type for you. Sadly, but with good reason, I’m saying bye to my neon green trainers for now.
Terrain: One bonus to outdoor running is the choice in terrain—grass, in the woods, on the beach, or the pavement. However it is very important that during your workout you stick to one or two of these over the course of your run. Your joints adjust to the specific terrain you are running on at that given time and if you are constantly switching between grass and pavement, etc., you can tear your joints or cause unnecessary strain.
Stretch and Warm- up: If there is one thing I have learned from my injury, it is that warming up and stretching is a daily necessity for athletes. In order to effectively prevent injury, you have to engage in a dynamic warm-up that raises your heart rate, gets blood flowing to stagnant joints, and prepares your body for the movements you are about to do, making your body able to adjust to the impact without strain. Failure to stretch before a run is one of the top ways to injure yourself. If you have not fully warmed up, you literally are just tearing your muscles before you have even begun your workout. Some examples of dynamic warm-ups include ankle rolls, in-place lunges, skips, hip circles, and leg swings. Stretching should either be done after a full dynamic warm-up (about 15-20 minutes), or at the end of your run. Attending yoga classes a few times a week is also a great way to stretch out those contracted muscles.
Speed and Form: Running is running, right? Not necessarily. Whether on the playground or on a sports team, we’ve been running since we were little kids and it feels pretty natural to us. But the truth is there is a specific form that all runners should learn and practice to stay safe and healthy while running. My physical therapist watched me run on the treadmill and told me that the way I slammed my foot down was sending significantly more shock through my body than if I had used correct form. When you run, focus on rolling from heel to toe distributing equal pressure through the ball of your foot as you bring your foot back up. My ankles were so stiff that I just swung my leg around and slammed it on the ground without rolling through the entirety of my foot. When she looked at my “new shoes” that I had only had for about two months, she said she would’ve thought I had been running in them for years. That’s how much slamming I was causing from poor form. Also, don’t assume that running faster causes more pounding and is worse for you, because the slower you run, the more shock is sent through your leg. This doesn’t mean sprint out of your comfort zone for the entirety of your run, but you aren’t necessarily “taking it easy” when running at a slow pace.
Cross Training: This is by far the most important part of injury prevention for runners. Up until this past winter I didn’t give any other workout the time of day. I thought that running was the most effective, only way to stay in shape. But being injured and physically unable to run for an entire season, I forced myself to detach from the unrealistic notion that running is the only form of exercise. Craving that runner’s high and endorphin release that I normally got from running, I tried other things like weight training, the elliptical, and stair machines. Nothing really seemed to cut it. Then I started to take classes at The Handle Bar. The combination of cardio, strength, interval and speed training set to upbeat and high- energy music began to satisfy all my running cravings. Not only was I maintaining the endurance I worked so hard to gain from running, but I was strengthening not only my muscles, but my bones and joints as well. This cardio workout is a perfect compliment to anyone who also loves to run. Stationary biking is almost always recommended to anyone with an injury as it is a low impact alternative that not only keeps you in shape, but actually strengthens your weak areas without straining them. It is crucial to any runner’s health to switch up your workouts. As you start to run outside more and more this upcoming spring, it is in your absolute best interest to compliment your runs with spin classes, particularly at a place as specialized in the workout as The Handle Bar.
Mix runs in with your cycling classes, and cycling classes in with your runs. You will find that the two go hand- in- hand beautifully and you will find yourself stronger than ever. Finally able to run again, I don’t regret one minute I spent switching my workouts from running to cycling. Whenever I’m running up a hill I just picture Elise or Sarah leading us through a tough climb in class. One of the best benefits from switching up my workouts and adding classes at the HB is that I’ve been able to add some great new music to my running playlists—all of which I’ve heard here.
These tips will help keep you healthy and running through this spring and onward. And remember that pushing through the pain for that one run isn’t worth a season on the bench. Don’t be afraid to switch it up and take that extra few minutes to stretch!