Being sidelined from running with an injury is miserable and recovery can be a long process. I love running for its cardio benefits and for the sense of accomplishment I feel. I’ve written about my unlikely journey to becoming a runner in midlife here. I recently thought those glory days might be behind me ‘though as I had an insight into the frustration of a running injury, spending 12 months dealing with IT Band Syndrome.
If running is part of your fitness routine in midlife, you might not be able to avoid injury altogether but there are things you can do to minimise the chances of an injury occurring.
PLEASE NOTE: This post should not be taken as medical or physical therapy advice in treating an injury. Please see your doctor or physiotherapist for advice specific to your situation.
My running injury
At the end of a 10k fun run in late 2019 I felt a stabbing-like pain on the outside of my knee. Each time I went for a run after that the pain returned, and each time it was more severe and took longer to recover from. My physio diagnosed it as IT Band Syndrome.
The Iliotibial Band (IT Band) is a thick band of fascia (connective tissue) that runs from the pelvic bone down the outside of the thigh, crossing the knee joint and keeping it stable. Tension or inflammation of the IT band causes it to rub against the knee, resulting in sharp pain on the outside of the knee. IT Band Syndrome, or ITBS, is considered a non-traumatic overuse injury which is often due to hip abductor weakness.
I started on the first line of treatment for ITBS; exercises to strengthen my hips and glutes. Progress was slow and frustrating and I was starting to think I should hang up the boots for good. After six months I was referred to a running-specialist physio, hoping for a miracle cure.
This wonderful person assessed my running technique and made slight adjustments, he fine-tuned my strength exercises and he introduced me to the subject of pain psychology. Also, he asked about my menopause status, my diet and my sleep quality. I love this holistic approach to overall health, lifestyle and mindset adjustments to help prevent or recover from injury.
Twelve months after I had the first episode of ITBS pain I was finally able to run without any pain.
Why running injuries occur
Common causes of injuries are a lack of strength, poor running technique, inadequate support and cushioning in your shoes, and overuse and inadequate rest.
How to prevent running injuries
1. Strengthen and stretch
If you run, you need to be doing strength training. Your hips and glutes need to be strong to cope with the load that running asks of them. Good strength exercises that target the glutes and hips include single leg bridges, side planks, squats and side leg raises. Aim to do three sets of 12 repetitions twice a week.
Core strength is also important to maintain a stable running posture core strength. Pilates and yoga are great for this and will also increase your overall strength. Don’t forget your hamstrings – try bridges with your feet on a bench or chair.
Stretching before and after a run is vital. Tight fascia and muscles can cause your body to compensate by changing your running gait. This can lead to an injury. Before a run do some dynamic stretches such as leg swings and glute activations. Post-run, passive stretches are better – stretch through your quads, hamstrings and hip flexors. A soak in a magnesium salt bath is also amazing – it’s my favourite part of the run!
2. Check your running technique
Your feet should be under your hips when they strike the ground rather than extended forward. This minimises the impact on your ankles and knees. One way to do this is to take short, quick steps to increase your cadence. Running to a metronome app at 165 – 170 beats per minute really helps me with this.
Be mindful of your posture when running, and try to keep upright with your shoulders back and relaxed.
If possible, have your technique assessed by a physio who specialises in running. Your running posture, your cadence (how many times your foot strikes the ground) and your gait all contribute to the potential for injury so it’s important to get these right. By making a few tweaks you might not just be running safer, but you might even improve your running times that’s something that’s important to you.
3. Replace your shoes if they’re showing signs of wear
If your running shoes are showing signs of wear or you’re getting blisters or aches and pains you probably need new ones. Worn out shoes can result in a change in posture and gait which can lead to injuries. This is due to the shoe losing its shock-absorption ability. Shoes should be replaced after 500 – 750 kilometres.
We all love a bargain and it’s tempting to jump online for the best deal on running shoes. But before you Add to Cart… If you can spend a bit more money, have your running gait assessed at a specialist sports shoe store and get a shoe style and size that’s perfect for you. You might be saving yourself from spending more money and lots of frustration from an injury caused by inappropriate shoes.
4. Rest, and eat
It’s important to rest after a run as this allows the micro tears in your muscles time to heal. This is even more important as we go through menopause and as our bones and muscles lose density and mass. Running is a great way to help prevent this loss but it’s important to avoid overuse. Check out this excellent video on Coach Parry’s channel about recovery for menopausal runners here.
Your body needs fuel in order to build muscle and bone strength to keep you running safely. A balanced, nutritious and unrestricted diet in line with the Australian Dietary Guidelines is a great basis for most people.
Ensure you have enough lean protein, complex carbohydrates, and hydration. This will give you the energy to run and your body the strength it needs.
5. Gradually increase the distance you run
A sudden increase in the distance your run can cause injuries. My ITBS started at a time I’d gone from running a few kilometres here and there to running 10k in one go. Although I was fit enough to manage the distance (just!), my body wasn’t used to the load.
Doing regular, short runs is much better than pushing yourself to nail a distance you haven’t trained for. It keeps your body ‘run ready’ and lowers your risk of injury. Try the run/walk method if, like me, you struggle with motivation to run.
If you have a goal to build up the distance you run, perhaps to participate in an event, increase your distance by no more 10% each week.
Minimise the likelihood of injuries
Running injuries mostly occur due to things that can be avoided or at least minimised, rather than as a result of a freak accident. Niggling aches and pains can quickly become a chronic condition that prevents you from enjoying the benefits of running at this time of life.
But by being aware of the common causes of injuries and what you can do to prevent them, there’s no reason why you can’t keep running in midlife and beyond.
Have you had a running injury or are you recovering from one? I’d love to hear your insights and experiences.