We are in the throes of marathon season. In the North East, the weather has shifted and it feels like autumn! Runners are either 1) feeling really good, 2) stressed that their mileage is not high enough and they are behind in their training, or 3) starting to feel a little beat up.
Often #2, stress about low mileage, leads to #3, over-training and injury. Runners worry that they’re behind and jump from running 25 miles a week to 40 and then “overuse” injuries pop up.
This has certainly happened to me in the past. My first few years of running, I was plagued by overuse injuries. In speaking with runners regularly, I found that this is pretty common, especially if you’re coming into running without an athletic base.
I went from a relatively sedentary lifestyle, sitting at a desk for the bulk of 10 hours per day to marathon training in just over a year. My body seemed able to handle the training load for a half distance without any cross-training or strength training. I just ran. At the time, I had no idea how to incorporate strength training into my running routine and I had no appreciation for the benefits of a strong core for running. I ran 5 days a week, usually at the exact same pace every time, only varying the distance on a given day.
Once my training plan started calling for longer runs (more than 12 or 13 miles), the wheels fell off. Ok, my legs didn’t literally fall off, but little injuries started popping up. For me, it was mostly hip and IT band related. The more I ran, the worse they got.
I still remember the first time I ran in Central Park. I was living in Baltimore at the time and I registered for Grete’s Gallop, a half marathon that went 2x around the hilly ~6.1 mile loop, with my boyfriend. About half way through, my left hip started bothering me and I began walk-running. Afterwards, I told Michael (my new(ish) boyfriend, at the time) how much I hated Central Park. Haha, thank goodness my feelings changed.
I was eager to get to the bottom of this hip issue so I went to see a sports medicine doctor, who ordered a bunch of tests. They are all inconclusive. I had no broken bones. And then I went to a active release therapist. Finally, a hip doctor who detected a labral tear and suggested we either operate or I get a cortisone shot. This was a long hunt for the root cause, which spanned the better part of 2 years. Even after a diagnosis from the hip guy, my gut told me that small labral tears were not causing my issue.
After all of that, I was talking to another athlete who decisively said, “I bet your ass is weak.”
Yeah, he explained. These injuries are pretty common in new runners and can usually be alleviated by cross-training or lifting to strengthen the glutes and hamstrings. In some cases, I see runners who have strength in these muscles, but they don’t know how to engage them when they run. Activation is the issue. Either way, cross-training can help solve the problem.
And sure enough, when I started my first tri season soon after, I could feel the back of my legs and my core developing. Swimming, biking, and running several times in one week left my legs feeling heavy, but the soreness I felt slowly became less intense as my body adjusted. And my hip issue was soon a distant memory.
What you can do
If you’re in this boat, you may have upped your mileage too quickly, which exacerbated a muscular imbalance that you have. If you think your pain is from an overuse injury, I have a few tips for you:
- Skip the doctor and go right to a Physical Therapist (PT). If you don’t already have someone you know and trust, choose one who works with endurance athletes. The PT can give you a number of exercises to do and sessions are sometimes covered by insurance! The thing is, you have to actually DO the exercises the PT prescribes so I always recommend going to the PT at least a few times to build the habit. Plus, you’ll often receive short massages so office visits can be worth the time and investment.
- Incorporate regular cross-training. For me, cycling has been a really great way to engage the back of my legs and butt. If you’re having trouble activating your posterior chain while doing these activities, imagine you’re squeezing a quarter in between your cheeks. Swimming is great for your core. If your injury is not preventing you from running, hill work is a great way to build muscle and activate your rear. cross-training can replace a couple of your easy-paced runs per week.
- Create your own strength regimen & incorporate it a few times a week. There are so many useful tools for this online. I like to see demos of new exercises to ensure I’m doing the correctly so I frequently use Runner’s World videos and other free online resources. Examples of moves that can help with common overuse injuries include, clam shells, monster walk, squats (double & single leg), lunges, plank & push-ups.
If you’re feeling a little worse for the wear, don’t wait, head straight into see your Physical Therapist. Remember, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!