What running lacks in flashiness it makes up for in ease and availability. Beyond a good pair of shoes, running requires no equipment. Not to mention that it’s free, an excellent cardio workout, and a fabulous way to enjoy the outdoors. For running addicts, a daily run is about more than just a workout, it’s important to mental health. But if you’re not careful, running can take its toll on your body in the form of overuse injuries and damaged joints.
How to protect your joints
According Dr. Andy McMarlin, board-certified in sports medicine and a former physician for DC United soccer team and the Washington Nationals baseball team, protecting your joints is about making sure you have stability at the ankles, knees, and hips. You want your body to be a foundation of strength. These tips can help:
1. Do joint stabilization exercises
Certain stabilization exercises protect the joints. Hip weakness, for example, can result in too much pressure on the knees as well as causing injuries like illiotibial band syndrome or patellofemoral pain syndrome. Exercises like split squats, laternal squats, leg exercises with an exercise band, and plyometric exercises like walking lunges can strengthen the joints.
2. Analyze your gait
Dr. McMarlin says that it’s important to have your gait analyzed by a trained professional whether it’s an athletic trainer, sports medicine doctor, or physical therapist. If your gait is off it can cause running form flaws like overpronation of the foot or overstriding (severe heel strike). A trained professional can help you retrain your gait to prevent injuries and joint damage down the line. If you have flat feet, a running coach can easily recommend arches to keep you from putting so much pressure on the joints. Dr. McMarlin recommends going to a really nice running store to have your gait analyzed and then choosing shoes that support it.
3. Strengthen the intrinsic muscles of the feet
The small intrinsic muscles of your feet like the interossei and lumbricals play an important role in stabilizing your body during a run. Keeping them strong prevents ankle strains and plantar fasciitis, for example. One fun way to keep them strong is by putting small objects on the ground like marbles, little toys, hair clips, or whatever you can find and then trying to pick them up with your toes.
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4. Warm up and cool off
Don’t just dive into your workout. Give yourself an opportunity to warm up and cool down. Stretch your muscles and then walk a bit before you start your run. Do the same at the end of your workout. Many of us may already know the importance of warming up and cooling down, but we still fail to do it. But if you want your body to work for you, you need to ease into your workout.
5. Reduce inflammation in the body
Protecting joint health in the body is all about keeping inflammation in check. “Some research has shown that curcumin, found in turmeric can lower levels of inflammation in the body,” says Dr. McMarlin. He recommends taking 450 mg twice daily. It takes two to three weeks to make a difference, but it can be effective without too many side effects.
6. Stay mindful
When you’re running, it’s not a time to space out and think about all the things that you need to get done that day. It’s a time to focus on your run. Look at your gait, feel if you’re putting pressure on certain parts of the body, and most of all, watch out where you’re going so you don’t end up turning an ankle or tripping and smacking your knee on the pavement. Mindful movement reduces accidents.
7. Keep running
According to Dr. McMarlin, the newest research shows that running is protective for the joints. We formerly thought that running inherently damaged the joints, but newer data shows that the opposite is true. The bottom line is that you don’t need to feel guilty for hitting the pavement because it’s good for you.
What to Do If You Sustain an Injury
For runners who do sustain injuries or think they may have joint damage, Dr. McMarlin says that surgery isn’t always beneficial. But if you are dealing with joint damage due to higher impact exercises like running, these steps can help:
- Get the right diagnosis. Many doctors recommend surgery before it’s necessary and in some cases, it may not fix the problem. If you’re unsure, get a second opinion.
- Consider acupuncture. Treatments like acupuncture have also been proven effective. Some data has shown that acupuncture maybe effective at treating knee pain, though the data, says McMarlin, is less clear when it comes to hip joint pain. I wrote in an article last year that one of the most significant differences between acupuncture and pain medications is that while pain meds are pain blockers, they don’t help with the source of the problem. They create a numbing sensation which can stagnate energy and keep the body from healing itself, as opposed to acupuncture, which works to heal the issue.
- Add in heat. Treating joint pain with heat has also been shown to be an inexpensive and effective treatment on and around the joint.
- Don’t go from zero to sixty. Don’t sustain the same injury more than once. When you do return to your workout, make sure that you ease back into it rather than starting off where you were before the injury happened. Start off slow, running a few miles a day and then gradually add in mileage and up your pace. This gives your muscles and joints time to readjust.