8 steps to start running safely
Tuesday, April 26, 2016
This is the time of year when many people decide to take up running. The weather is starting to improve, and many are inspired by watching ordinary people take on the massive challenge of one of the big spring marathons. I have to admit that watching some of the London Marathon on Sunday made me once again think "I should do that one year."
While making the decision to start running is exciting and all you want to do is to get out there and run, there are a few things I highly recommend you do before you start. Following these simple steps will help to reduce your risk of injury and enhance your enjoyment of the sport!
1. Follow a program
Go online and find a beginner's running program you can follow. The Couch to 5K is a great example. Following this type of program is a great way to get started. It gives you small targets to hit and makes sure you don't overdo it.
Running is hard on the body, and going from nothing to running even a mile is a big challenge. Your body needs time to adjust to this, to develop the strength and fitness required for your new activity.
Improvements happen in your body while you are resting — not while you are exercising. So don't make the mistake so many people make and run on consecutive days when you first start out or increase your distance too quickly. Give your body a break — it will repay you for it.
2. Get the right shoes
Please don't try to run in any old sneakers you have. Go out and buy yourself a new pair of running shoes. Go to a reputable store with experienced staff and ask for their help. You don't have to spend a fortune and buy the top-of-the-range model, just something suitable for the activity and the new runner in question.
Many places will offer free gait analysis where they look at you run on a treadmill to try to help you select the best shoes for you based on how your foot moves. You'll hear words like "overpronation" or "supination."
By all means take up this offer — it's interesting if nothing else. But don't worry if the place you go to doesn't offer this. Research and experience is starting to show that actually what type of running shoe you get has little impact on your injury risk. Just make sure it's a running shoe.
Other than that, just wear something comfortable. Thin layers are good, and generally stay away from cotton as it will just hold on to any sweat you're building up and become wet and heavy. Synthetic fabrics are better.
I also recommend wearing something with a pocket so you can carry your phone just in case of any problems. If feeling it jiggle around in your pocket is irritating, invest in an armband so you can wear it instead.
3. Don't sign up for anything just yet
It can be quite tempting to think that if you sign up to an event from the start it will give you a target to aim for. While this can be true, it can also put a lot of pressure on you and reduce your enjoyment of getting into running. It can make you feel like you have to run a bit farther or do that extra run a week, more than your program suggests.
My advice is to wait until you have almost completed the program before deciding to commit to an event. There are loads of 5K events around, which is the distance most people start with.
4. Grab a buddy or join a club
We are all way more likely to stick to something if we have someone doing it with us! Your buddy can help drag you out when you'd rather sit on the sofa and keep you going when you're struggling. And you do the same for him/her. A friend can make sure you stick to the program and not cheat or do too much — and most importantly to make sure you are safe throughout your run.
If you don't know anyone who also fancies the challenge, consider joining a club. Running clubs are a great place to start — they aren't just for experienced runners. Most have a beginners group, which will have a range of people and abilities.
The added bonus of a club is the coaching you can get and also reduced-rate entry fees for races (when you're ready).
5. Warm up effectively
Warming up is important. You need to understand that from the start.
It isn't OK to just go out and start slowly. You need to get your body moving, heart pumping and muscles warm before you set out. This helps to establish good movement patterns before you start the more stressful exercise.
Think about how many steps you take per minute. Then multiply that by how many minutes you are running for. That equals a lot of steps, thus a lot of impacts on the joints and work for the muscles. Doing all these steps with a reduced movement efficiency will increase the stress even further and therefore increase injury risk.
Warmups for running should include dynamic movements to get the hips, knees and ankles moving. Focus on control and technique to set the standard for your run. Exercises like walking lunges, squats and dynamic stretching for the hamstrings, groin and calves are what you need to be doing.
This isn't the place for a long description of exercises. A quick look on YouTube will produce loads of good videos you can follow through. A warmup should last at least 10 minutes and end with a few short shuttle runs with good form.
6. Spend time on a cooldown
A cooldown is also important. This will really make a difference to how stiff and achy you feel tomorrow ... and the next day ... and maybe even the day after that.
You will ache when you start running. That's a fact. You're doing something difficult that your body isn't used to. But as you get stronger and run farther, you should find this pain reduces.
Even the most seasoned runners will still get a good case of delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) a day or two after a hard session. Believe it or not it's a good sign that you're progressing. But it can be off-putting for a new runner.
There are things you can do to reduce the soreness, with the most effective one being a good cool down. This should involve walking for 5-10 minutes post-run, then spending another good 10-20 minutes stretching out the legs and bum muscles.
7. Strengthen your muscles
A common misconception with new (and even regular) runners is that running in itself is enough to strengthen your legs. But that's just not true.
Yes, running will improve the endurance in the muscles in your legs and bum, which move you forward in that linear fashion. However, running does nothing for the muscles that move you sideways. While you may think, "well, I don't need to move sideways," this is a big mistake.
The glute (bum) muscles in particular are important for runners, even though their main function is a sideways movement. If you don't have enough strength in these muscles, the knee tends to fall inward toward the other one and you run with a "knock-kneed" appearance.
This changes the alignment of the knee and even the lower leg and foot. It is the main contributor to injuries such as patellofemoral knee pain (aka runners knee) and pes anserine bursitis, and can even be a big part of injuries such as "shin splints" and plantar fasciitis.
You don't have to join a gym to start strengthening your legs and bum. There are plenty of exercises you can do at home with no or little equipment. Again a quick look on YouTube will produce plenty of runners strengthening exercises.
8. Listen to your body
It's a fairly well known fact that runners are stubborn. As an injury therapist, I have to agree. Getting a runner to stop running to allow his/her body to heal is tough, and most just won't or can't do it.
If you're new to running this is one habit to avoid. If you feel a pain or even just a little tweak, don't push on! Chances are you will only make it worse and increase the time spent resting in the long run.
In many cases, after a few days rest whatever you felt will have disappeared. If not, make an appointment to see a sports injury professional sooner rather than later.
These are my top tips for getting into running, safely and for the long term. Following these tips will help you to enjoy your running and progress at a steady pace with a lower risk of injury. Good luck!
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