We’ve all been there: something doesn’t feel right while on your run.
Do you keep running through the ache in your knee, twinge in your hamstring or pain in the arch of your feet? Must you take to the elliptical, toss the running shoes and head to the pool, or is it okay to run while injured? It’s a worrisome dilemma we’ve all faced. Something hurts, you know the pain indicates that a body part needs attention, but you REALLY don’t want to quit running. There’s a fine line between pushing too far through pain and not pushing hard enough.
First of all, pain is a valid message that something is damaged, inflamed, distorted or otherwise malfunctioning. It’s important to differentiate this from pain that’s a result of effort from a tough workout. Biologically, pain is a warning signal that something is amiss and needs to be addressed. You wouldn’t drive 60-100 miles per week with your ‘check engine’ light on in your car, would you? The problem may actually be very minor and readily fixed, or it might turn out to be something substantial. But either way, it’s best to address the problem sooner rather than later to avoid a larger problem farther down the road.
A variety of injuries manifest themselves as mild to severe. Within those categories there are different phases, from acute, sub-acute and chronic. Each is treated differently and each phase of healing requires different types of treatment. Although we would never advise giving instructions without being sure of an exact diagnosis, here are some general rules for running when things go awry:
1) DON’T run if you can’t do it right. If pain forces you to limp, hobble or distort yourself through a workout or race just to finish, don’t do it. You can compromise pace, duration and difficulty of the terrain in order to run while injured, but you should never run with compromised form. Running with a pain-induced compensation pattern is a great way to worsen an injury and acquire additional damage elsewhere in your body.
2) DON’T run with sharp, catching, locking, jabbing or stabbing pain. If you are wincing (or swearing) while running, you should stop. Mild pain that is dull, achy, bothersome, or annoying, but not distinctly sharp, doesn’t necessarily prohibit running. In that case, you can run cautiously and wisely — shorten the run, slow down, avoid hills, and choose routes where you can easily bail should the pain worsen.
3) DON’T run if a mild pain stays the same or intensifies as a run progresses. That is a stop signal. If you have mild pain that abates as you warm up, still proceed with caution, but it’s often OK to run.
4) DO err on the side of running gently if you’re hurting. Carefully and systematically monitor how you feel in the 24 hours afterward. If you do run with mild pain but afterward (or the next morning) the pain flares up, then the wisdom of hindsight suggests that you actually should NOT have run. Unfortunately, our body is sometimes unaware of the damage we are doing until later.
5) DO have a method of cross training readily available for those days when you want to get a good workout, but a painful muscle or tendon or joint is pleading for some rest and recovery. A growing body of evidence supports the use of strength training for athletes. A once or twice a week rehab routine, set up by a qualified healthcare provider, allows you to work at the cause of your limitations, be it strength, balance or flexibility. Conversely, if you feel you must run, you will most likely end up limping and grimacing until you won’t be able to run for a long time.
Final message: don’t ignore your running-related pains when they crop up. The biggest mistake people make is not listening to their body when they feel the onset of an injury. Get it evaluated and properly treated so you can more quickly get back to running!
Dr. Wes Gregg is a board-certified Chiropractic Physician and Physiotherapist at Hypo2 High Performance Sport Center. Go to hypo2sport.com or www.drwesgregg.com for more information. He enjoys working with a variety of people, athletes and non-athletes, and spends his free time enjoying all of Flagstaff’s beautiful outdoors and community.
Myles Schrag is coordinating editor for High Country Running. You can reach him at email@example.com.