After spending the long, cold winter months working out on treadmills and otherwise doing things other than your favorite activity—running outside—it's finally warm enough to take your workout outdoors.
But before you jump into an all-out pavement or trail binge, take a step back to avoid becoming injured, says Andrew Gerken, M.D., a foot and ankle specialist and orthopedic surgeon with Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Irvine, CA. "The best approach is a gradual strategy. Map out where you want to be over the next few months so you enjoy a nice summer. If your goal is to run a half marathon, you need to do six months of regular training before you can even think about doing a 5K." Even if you’ve kept up on your indoor workouts, running outdoors presents uneven and unforgiving terrain, wind resistance, and other challenges you don’t experience on a treadmill. So too much too soon will likely land you in the doctor's office instead of on the running trail.
To keep you on your feet instead of on the couch, Gerken (a runner himself) identified the top three injuries runners risk when the weather changes—and how to prevent them from happening.
Straining the plantar fascia, a flat band of tissue that connects your heel bone to your toes, can cause tiny tears in the ligament and lead to pain (usually in the heel) and swelling. It most often occurs when you have high arches or flat feet, run for long periods of time, are overweight, or have feet that roll inward excessively. Overtraining and neglecting to stretch your calf muscles are also culprits, Gerken says.
Prevent it: Start gradually, increasing mileage by no more than 10 percent a week. Stick to running on soft surfaces, and stretch out your calves after every workout. Gerken also recommends a mild, soft arch support. At the first sign of discomfort, use ice (rolling your foot over a frozen water bottle is a great trick) or do a gentle massage: Pull your toes back with one hand and use your opposite thumb to work along the length of the plantar fascia to loosen it up, Gerken suggests.
Too much running too soon—increasing your distance every day instead of giving your body time to adjust to the new distance, for example—can lead to Achilles tendinitis. You'll feel pain and stiffness along the Achilles tendon, or pain on the back of your heel that worsens when you run. You may also notice swelling of the tendon. (If you hear a sudden "pop" in the back of your heel, you may have ruptured your Achilles tendon; see a doctor immediately.)
Prevent it: Ease into your runs. "Use your first mile or so as a warm-up before going out harder," Gerken says. If you start to develop symptoms, use ice and stretch your calves, or perform this eccentric stretch: Stand on a step with both feet, heels hanging over the edge. Rise up on to your toes. Bring left foot behind right foot. Lower right foot slowly toward the floor. Rise up on both feet to return to starting position. Do 10 reps, then switch feet to complete set.
Overuse issues from excessive running can lead to irritation, strain, and swelling of the knee joint. The patella is literally wrapped inside a tendon that connects the large muscles on the front of the thighs (quadriceps). "For this reason, a tight quadriceps can get you into trouble," Gerken explains. Symptoms include pain between your kneecap and shinbone, where the tendon attaches to the bone. It may become painful only when you begin your run or after an intense workout, and can eventually make it difficult to climb stairs or stand up out of a chair.
Prevent it: Strengthening and stretching your quadriceps regularly is key, Gerken says. Strengthen by sitting up against a wall, right leg straight and left leg bent. Slowly raise right leg a few inches off the ground, hold, and slowly lower to starting position. Do 10 reps, then switch legs. Stretch by standing on left leg and gently pulling right leg behind you, knee pointed toward the ground. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds, then switch legs.