knee pain photo

In this chapter, we’ll be covering injuries and stitches, how to recognize them and how to avoid them.  Injuries happen to runners of all levels and abilities, from complete beginners to professional athletes.  For beginners, a good way of avoiding injury in the first stages is to use a run/walk combination that I’ve mentioned previously.  This is also a useful way of training after coming back from an injury.

Before we dive into injuries let’s take a look at the slightly less bothersome issue of stitches.  If you have done any exercise in the past then you will be familiar with the stitch; an uncomfortable pinching sensation in your abdomen.  The truth is that no-one really knows why stitches are caused, there is a mix of theories including: eating too close or drinking too many high-sugar beverages before a run or not breathing correctly during the run itself. 

It’s unlikely that you will ever be 100% stitch-free but there are ways to reduce the risk of stitches.  These include: taking deep breaths while running rather than quick, shallow breaths and not eating within an hour of going out for a run.  Maintaining good posture and not running hunched over can also help to avoid stitches.  The right posture for running is keeping straight and upright.  When you land on the floor you should try to land in the middle of the ball of your foot and pushing off strongly with the next leg.  Your arms should be kept at waist height, there’s no need to hold them up high near your chest and, in fact, this will likely just build tension along your shoulders and upper back.

Making sure that you’re hydrating little and often is also key to avoiding stitches.  It’s advisable not to drink for an hour prior to your run, but when you return it’s important to replace the water, salts and minerals that you have lost during exercise.  I will be going into more detail about hydration strategies whilst running in the final book of the series.  But to give you an idea, for a 5km run you should be able to cope without drinking any water during your actual run, although this may seem daunting at first and may be something that you need to work up to.  When you’re starting out it’s best to try to limit your water intake to 4 to 6 ounces or approximately 120 to 180ml every 20 minutes.

Let’s move on to shin splints, which are injuries that a lot of runners experience, especially those just starting out as they try to do too much too soon.

But what exactly are shin splints?  There are two kinds of splints, anterior and medial.  With anterior shin splints, you’ll notice pain on the outside part of your lower leg along the shin and with medial shin splints the pain will be concentrated along the inside of the lower leg.  There are a number of theories as to the physiological explanation of shin splints, but it is though that they are a result of small tears in the soft tissue where the muscle connects to the shin bone.  There are a number of possible causes of shin splints including, running on hard surfaces such as the pavement, over-training and doing too much too soon.  Shin splints can also be caused by over-pronation (check out Chapter 2 for a refresher), as well as wearing shoes that have been worn down and not stretching properly.  Normally it’s the runner’s dominant leg that suffers as it’s the leg that we tend to put more stress on.  It has been suggested that spending long periods of time running on treadmills can also cause shin splints, this is partly due to the treadmill actually imitating the effect of running downhill, which requires a great deal of anterior shin muscular strength.  A good way to avoid this is to only use the treadmill on an incline to simulate running outside in more variable conditions, which will be kinder on your shins.

So how do you treat shin splints? Although the experts may not agree on exactly how shin splints occur, they do agree that when you start feeling the effects of them, you should stop running immediately, or at least tone down your training to the bare minimum to avoid any further damage.  Using an ice pack on your lower legs can help to reduce the pain, but make sure that you don’t apply the ice directly to the skin, cover it in a towel or something similar.  The ice pack should be administered after you run and it’s a good idea to keep the ice on your shins for between ten to fifteen minutes.  It’s helpful to do this a couple of times a day, perhaps the morning and the evening or whenever is most convenient for you.  

If you continue to run and try to run through the pain then it is likely that you will only make your injury worse.  Shin splints are one of what we call overuse injuries; they’re a way of your body telling you to step back and take it easy for a little while to let yourself recover.  There are some stretches that will help to ease the pain such as stretching your calves, using for example the stretch I’ve outlined in the previous chapter.  If you’re concerned that by giving yourself time to recover you’ll be losing the stamina that you’ve worked so hard to build up, then cross-training is a good idea.  It’s a good opportunity for you to start doing other cardio work such as swimming or cycling, which will also help to strengthen your leg muscles and hopefully protect them from further outbreaks of splints.

As I mentioned, wearing shoes that aren’t right for your feet or wearing shoes that have long past their use by date may also lead to developing shin splints, so it’s important to check your shoes on a regular basis.  It’s a good idea to check your shoe to see if you need more stability and cushioning and I would recommend heading to your local running store if you do develop shin splints.  They’ll be able to check your current trainers and suggest other running shoes that may be more beneficial to you.  If the pain doesn’t improve then it’s time to see your doctor, there may be an underlying reason why your leg isn’t healing as it should.