DIY self-care: Avoiding and dealing with running injuries

DIY self-care header image

Injuries and niggles are unfortunately a fact of life for runners. Even if you are one of the few runners who never gets an injury that stops them from running, it remains an ever present threat lurking below the surface. In more ‘normal’ times, we have easier access to the resources that can keep us running:

  • Pools and gyms for cross training;
  • Sports massage therapists to knead out those knots; and
  • Physiotherapists to put us back together again.

It’s trickier to access these services while Covid-19 is around, so you may need to do some DIY self-care to avoid and resolve running injuries during lockdown.

Prevention is the best medicine

Obviously, the best option is to avoid getting injured in the first place. Most running injuries can be thought of as overuse injuries. Running too far, or too fast has caused something to go wrong.

Stress and rest

Improvements in running fitness come about by balancing the stress needed to prompt adaptations in your body, with enough rest to allow those adaptations to occur. It’s a fine balance. Don’t run enough and you may not improve. Run too much and you won’t give your body enough time to recover, which may lead to an injury. The difficulty is knowing how to balance them.

The ten per cent rule

You may be familiar with the advice not to increase your weekly mileage, or the length of your longest run, by more than ten per cent each week. It’s not a perfect formula, as it isn’t necessarily the best approach for all runners, but it’s not a bad rule of thumb.

The theory is that by restricting the extra training load to a maximum of ten per cent more than you did the previous week, you won’t overload the body by more than it can handle.

For a runner looking to increase their mileage from 10 miles to 20 miles a week, this means they would need to take 8 weeks to get there:

  • Starting point (the previous week’s mileage): 10 miles;
  • Week 1: 11 miles;
  • Week 2: 12.1 miles;
  • Week 3: 13.3 miles;
  • Week 4: 14.6 miles;
  • Week 5: 16.1 miles;
  • Week 6: 17.7 miles;
  • Week 7: 19.5 miles;
  • Week 8: 21.5 miles.

This might look overly cautious to some, but it is this caution that will help reduce your risk of injury.

Hold back

Depending on where you live in the world, there’s a good chance that coronavirus lockdown restrictions have meant postponed or cancelled running events. With no races on the calendar, there’s less need to train at our limits to reach peak fitness. To avoid injury, and keep on running through lockdown, try holding back a little.

You shouldn’t lose much fitness, if any. In fact, you might find you get fitter. Our running improves when we maintain a consistent level of training, rather than swing between peaks and troughs of hard training and injury.

This is as true of beginners as it is elites. The men’s marathon world record holder, Eliud Kipchoge, says he rarely goes above 80-90% effort in training. This is so he can run the next day, and the day after that, and so on for long periods.

If lockdown finishes and you’ve not got anywhere near your longest or fastest ever runs, but you’ve been able to average a consistently good level of training as a result, you’ll be well placed to kick on to harder training once events start up again.

Don’t train through an injury

The odd little niggle isn’t usually a problem. If it’s not especially painful, and stops when you’re not running, it might be something you can train through. Some aches and pains are to be expected.

However, if it doesn’t go away, or starts to get worse, stop running! It’s much better to have a few days off than to make a problem worse and spend months not being able to run.

If it goes wrong

Sometimes though, despite our best intentions, we get injured.

Immediate care

If you’re unfortunate enough to get a injury, there are a couple of early steps you can take to speed up your recovery:

  • Don’t do things that hurt. If you can’t walk without pain, for example, then don’t walk.
  • Eat well, stay hydrated, and get enough sleep. This will give your body a better chance of fixing the problem.

Beyond that, things get a bit more complicated.

Should I, or shouldn’t I?

The benefit of being able to see a medical expert, is that they can help you navigate the nuances of different recovery methods, and offer a solution to your specific problem. The difficulty with self-diagnosis, or finding answers online (including this article) is there is a chance the apparent answer might not be as beneficial as you hoped. Consider the following:

Ice

Putting ice or a cold pack on an injury (but never directly onto your skin), is frequently recommended as a means for reducing swelling or bruising. That’s because it restricts blood flow.

This is a good thing if the swelling hurts, but it can also be a problem. After all, swelling happens for a reason.

The body sends blood to an injury to aid in the repair process. By using ice or elevating the body part to reduce the swelling, you may also be slowing down the recovery process.

Painkillers

If you’re in a lot of pain, drugs to reduce that pain can feel welcome. However, they can be a double-edged sword. If you’re feeling pain, that’s because there’s a problem in your body that needs to be resolved. By numbing the pain, you might feel able to keep training through the injury, and end up making that problem worse.

Stretching

Some runners stretch. Others don’t. It’s one of those topics that can cause a lot of debate!

Stretching can deliver a feeling of temporary relief, but, it can also put unnecessary strain on an already strained muscle.

If you feel you must stretch, do so lightly, and not to the point where it starts to hurt.

To stretch or not to stretch?

Massage

Regular sports massage can help reduce the risk of injuries and aid recovery should an injury occur. A skilled sports massage therapist will be able to work their magic in a way that is hard to recreate yourself. You can get close though.

Foam rollers, massage sticks and tennis balls can all be used to good effect if you don’t have an obliging housemate or family member. They’re reasonably inexpensive, too. If you fancy splashing the cash, consider buying a massage gun.

Find a knot and give it a prod, or roll out achey muscles. Just take care not to go too hard on an area that’s tender, or bruise yourself – the idea is to encourage the body to heal itself, not to make it worse!

Work on your weaknesses

If you keep getting an injury in a particular area, that indicates there is a weakness to be addressed.¬†Once the initial pain has gone, and you’re not at risk of making the problem worse, work on gently strengthening the injured area.

Calf-raises

For example, if you keep getting sore calves, try adding calf-raises to your daily routine. Stand with your toes on a step, then slowly dip down so your heels drop below the toes. Slowly raise yourself up again so you’re on tip toes, then return to neutral. Repeat. You should be able to feel the effort in your calf muscles, but stop once it starts to hurt. Do this often (perhaps when cleaning your teeth) and your lower leg strength should improve, hopefully resolving your sore calf issue.

The rest of the body

There’s too many different parts of the body, and too many possible exercises to go into here, but the principle works for other common running niggles. If you get sore hips when running, for example, do an internet search for ‘hip strengthening exercises’ and make them part of your routine.

Overall strength

Sometimes, it’s not one particular area that causes us problems, but a series of aches and pains that might pop up in different places every time we run. In this instance, it might be our overall strength and conditioning that could do with a little work.

Running is a linear movement, where our limbs move forwards and backwards with very little sideways movement. On top of this, lockdown means many of us are spending more time sat down at home. The result is that our bodies aren’t going through much variety of movement, which can lead to a lack of all-round strength.

Conditioning at home

Think about the different things you might be able to do at home to compensate for this. It needn’t be anything too hardcore, like heavy weights (which few of us have at home), but anything that involves different kinds of movements. For example:

  • Yoga;
  • Pilates;
  • Dancing;
  • Online HIIT workouts;
  • Playing Twister!

If you make it fun, you’ve got more chance of sticking with it.

Get off road

Alternatively, add some non-linear movements to your run by heading for the trails. The unstable, unpredictable terrain requires lots of micro-adjustments from your muscles to stay balanced. If you’re not used to trail running, or still recovering from an injury, take it slowly at first to avoid slipping or twisting an ankle. It shouldn’t be long though before you find your feet and running off road becomes second nature.

Hilly trail runs can work your muscles in a different way to flat road running

There’s no magic bullet

It’s human nature to want to do, or add something to solve a problem. Often, the answer is actually to do less.

Put your feet up for a bit. Our bodies are wonderful organisms that are capable of repairing so much, provided we give them a chance to do so.

Be patient, find something else to entertain you while you’re not running, and the problem might just resolve itself. Just make sure to go easy when you start running again.

Go pro

Finally, it is worth pointing out that the above advice has been written with relatively minor injuries and niggles in mind, during a period in which it’s not very easy to go and see a specialist for something that isn’t an emergency.

However, if you’ve got a serious problem, are in a lot of pain, or the injury isn’t getting better then seeing a medical professional is the best thing for you to do.

Don’t delay, seek professional advice, and with luck you’ll be back running in no time.