8 Common Running Injuries
Article written by Matt Harris PT, DPT, CSCS, is a physical therapist and supervisor at the Nemours Center for Sports Medicine in Wilmington, Del.
Running is a sport that can be done all year long. For many young athletes, running is their after school sport of choice. Runners can compete in the fall, winter and spring in cross country, run indoor/outdoor track, and train in the summer. Whether a student is running throughout the year or during a specific season, all are prone to running-specific injuries.
One of the most common injuries for runners are shin splints, caused by inflammation in the tissues, tendons, and bones in the shin (tibia). This overuse injury can be due to new or increased training. Pain along the tibia is associated with shin splints, as well as sharp or dull and throbbing pain and mild swelling. The pain can last both during and after running, and the area hurts to touch. People with flat feet or worn-out or improper footwear are more prone to shin splints.
Shin Splint treatment, like all other injuries in this list, includes rest and taking a break from running. However, lower-impact activities may be substituted while resting from running. Ice, compression and anti-inflammatory medication can also help reduce the inflammation and can help reduce pain. Flexibility and strengthening exercises are an integral part of a rehab program, and help prevent return of pain. Orthotics may be used to reduce the risk of shin splints in runners with flat feet or who have recurring problems. Often, the most important factor is ensuring a gradual return to running once cleared to do so.
Stress fractures, often times due to overuse, cause tiny cracks in the bones. Runners will most often get stress fractures in their lower legs or feet. Symptoms include pain while exercising, tenderness, and swelling or redness of the affected area. Stress fractures are oftentimes confused for shin splints. X-rays can help determine if the pain is due to stress fractures.
To treat stress fractures, runners should take a break from running or any motions that are similar to running. To treat the pain, a runner can ice the area and take pain medicine as advised by a doctor. In some cases, splints, casts, or braces may be worn while the fracture is healing.
Iliotibal (IT) Band Syndrome
IT band syndrome is a common running injury caused by overuse and repetitive movements. The IT band is located in the thigh, connecting the hip to the knee. The pain might resemble knee pain on the outside of the knee but without the swelling. The pain begins a few minutes into the run and is commonly brought on by wearing old shoes, running downhill, overtraining or training in the same direction around a track.
IT band injuries are very treatable. The best way to treat an IT band injury is to rest immediately, whether that’s taking off from running completely or significantly cutting down on mileage. While resting, runners can still stay in shape by doing cross training activities such as swimming or biking. Proper warm-up, cool down, stretching, and strengthening will all help with the treatment and prevention of IT band injuries.
Unlike many injuries on this list, ankle sprains are not due to overuse but instead a one-time injury. When a runner lands wrong, rolls his or her ankle or falls, ligaments in the ankle can stretch or tear, causing a sprain. Running on uneven surfaces may increase the risk of ankle sprains. This sprain is usually accompanied by instant pain and swelling.
A runner suffering from an ankle sprain should rest, use ice, use compression and elevate the ankle. Some runners may need to use crutches or wear a boot, and a runner should not go back to running until the sprain is healed. Wearing an ankle brace and undergoing physical therapy to improve strength may help prevent re-injury.
Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome (Runner’s Knee)
Runner’s knee occurs when the knee is repetitively bent and straightened, causing stress on the knee. The pain is under or around the kneecap and can be made worse by squatting, jumping, climbing/descending stairs or walking. An athlete may complain of a popping or creaking feeling in their knee.
Treatment for runner’s knee includes resting the knee and limiting, stopping or changing training. To help with the pain, ice the knee and take pain medication as prescribed. Addressing any imbalances in the muscles in the leg can help prevent return of pain in the future. Additionally, doctor may recommend a knee brace, taping the knee or using a special shoe insert.
The Achilles is a band that runs along the back of the food and ankle, and Achilles tendonitis occurs when that band becomes swollen and irritated. Pain may become worse through running and go away while resting. Stiffness and soreness of the area, swelling and hard knots, weakness and pain pointing the toes may be signs of Achilles tendonitis. Achilles tendonitis is an overuse injury that can be caused by a sudden increase in running, not warming up before running or not stretching the area. It may also be a one-time injury caused by a blow to the area.
To treat Achilles tendonitis, rest and keep the ankle straight by wearing a boot, using crutches or taping the ankle. In addition, icing, stretching and strengthening surrounding muscles can help with both pain management and recovery. Make sure nothing rubs against the Achilles.
Plantar Fasciitis is not an injury exclusive to exercise or running, but many runners may experience it due to overuse. Plantar fasciitis is when connective tissue in the bottom of your foot that connects the heel to the front of your foot becomes inflamed. There is a sharp pain near the heel. Unlike many other injuries on this list, the pain gets worse after the running is completed. The pain may also be worse in the morning and subside after walking around. It may also hurt when standing for a while or when just standing up.
Plantar fasciitis will usually go away on its own after a few months when cutting down on activity that inflames the area and doing some simple exercises. Stretching calf muscles and wearing correct shoes can help with plantar fasciitis.
A hamstring sprain occurs when the muscles in the back of your leg are stretched too far. There are three muscles that make up the hamstring, and a hamstring sprain can involve a stretch or tear in only one, two or all three of those muscles. Hamstring strains are usually felt immediately when running. A sharp and possibly popping sensation will occur in the back of your leg, and you will be unable to keep running. Other symptoms include weakness and tenderness in the back of the leg. Some possible causes of hamstring strains are a muscle imbalance, poor technique, being out of shape, overdoing it or not warming up properly.
To treat hamstring strains, you may only need to practice “rice” (rest, ice, compress, elevate), or more serious strains may require surgery. A doctor will be able to determine the severity of the strain and the appropriate treatment. Be sure the strain heals fully before returning to running. Adding stretching and strengthening, once cleared to do so, can help recovery and prevent re-injury.
The best way to deal with running injuries is to do everything you can to prevent them.
- Ease into running, slowly increasing mileage each week.
- Allow periods of rest between seasons.
- Warm up, cool down and stretch.
- Stop when you feel pain.
- Replace running shoes when they become worn out. Running shoes should fit well and have a shock-absorbing sole.