Analysis: changes in running distance, speed, surface, footwear, environment and stress levels can all cause a running injury

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By Peter Francis, Institute of Technology Carlow

Humans can travel further, faster than any other mammal on the planet. We have distinct physical features which facilitate this, namely our ability to sweat. Our ability to cool through sweating means we can keep going for hours at a time during which time most zebras, lions and cheetahs would have died from heat exhaustion.

We were born to walk and run long distances, in fact, it has been central to our evolution and survival as a species. During the recent pandemic and the closure of exercise facilities, many of us came to rely on this innate ability to maintain our physical and mental health.

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From RTÉ's We Become Heroes, Sonia O'Sullivan tracks her running career from Cobh to the Olympics with Game On's Marie Crowe

Besides sweating, there are unique features that allow you to hop from one leg to the other during running. Your achilles tendon (the cord at the back of your heel) is around 10 times longer than that of our ape-like cousins and combined with the arch in our feet, it means our feet and ankles can act like springs. We have big bum muscles on the side of our hips that stop us falling over and we have a big ligament that runs down the back of our neck that keeps our head still as we bop along (watch a ponytail swinging to see this ligament in action while restraining the head).

However, for at least half of us, we get injured pretty quickly. This is a real shame as no other activity burns as many calories in as little time and with so little equipment. As a scientist, I have been asking myself why is a species that evolved to run so injury prone? Wouldn't it be shocking if 50% of all fish couldn’t swim due to injury or 50% of monkeys couldn’t climb?!

Why do runners get injured?

Put simply, runners get injured when they change anything too quickly. Changes in running distance or speed, surface, footwear, stress levels, environment and non-running activity can all precede a running injury. Ironically, our desire to change things too quickly is also a central part of our evolutionary story. Think of a time when you ate, spent, or drank too much and you will see this tendency at work.

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Our propensity toward overindulgence in terms of what we buy or eat is based on the rewards we crave and running is no different. The rewards we crave might be associated with internal goals like weight-loss, fitness level or a new personal best or such external goals as a race or the fitness levels of someone in your training group. The tendency of the modern runner to compete with themselves and others can spill over into other areas of life meaning runners often lead busy lives that can contribute to psychological overload.

These psychological drivers of injury are added to by physical ones. Running is a sport that lacks variability and the repetitive nature of the activity often can contribute to overuse injuries. This is added to by the fact that most of us have little movement and little movement variability in our modern lives thanks to cars, sofas, offices, and many other seated behaviours.

Our tendency to be couch potatoes when we are not running means we are not as well conditioned for vigorous activities like running in a way we might have been in our evolutionary past. Cushioned shoes also contribute to us having weaker feet and sometimes allow us to use poor running form on very hard surfaces such as concrete.

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From the Exercising Health podcast, Dr Peter Francis on the benefits of barefoot running for injury prevention

Our need for the rewards we crave often means we run through little injury niggles when we should not and they get worse. Once injured, we attend clinicians. Some clinicians can have a tendency to focus too much on the physical diagnosis of the pain and not take into account all of the other factors mentioned above. Sometimes, this leads to us being overly focused on pain and weaknesses in our body and looking for overly simplistic solutions like new shoes, complex (and expensive) therapies or the latest stretching routine.

How to avoid running injuries

By this point, you're probably wondering what the solution is to this complex mess. The best way to avoid running injuries is to do the opposite of the above. Start by not changing any aspect of your training, footwear or running surface too quickly. Have a think about the volume of training you can do right now, comfortably, no matter how small. Aim to stay with that volume for the next four to eight weeks. To increase your chances of doing so, keep a record of your training every week. Make sure you block out time for your running, so that you do not become psychologically overloaded.

Introduce variability into your training by ensuring no two days are the same so you avoid running the same loop or at the same speed all the time. Try adding some non-running variability into your training. This is sometimes referred to as strength and conditioning training, but yoga, pilates, cross-training at the gym, circuits, weight-lifting, hill runs and sprinting are all ways of using your body differently and at higher intensities than plain old jogging. This will help you use all of your muscles more fully and reduce the risk of joints and other tissues from being overloaded.

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If you live near a nice grass park or a beach with medium firm sand, try to incorporate 10 to 15 minutes of easy barefoot running as part of your warmup or cool down a couple of times per week. At least once per week, run up a hill as fast as you can (like a child on a school sports day), this will help you to increase confidence in your body and be more psychologically resilient to minor injuries that occur.

Be aware of behaviours associated with our modern lives that reduce movement variability and try to interrupt them. For example, park the car a little further away from work and walk to it (walking is movement variability) or alternate between standing and seated desks. Good luck and take your time

Running from InjuryRunning from Injury: Why runners get injured and how to stop it is published on June 28th

Dr Peter Francis is a lecturer and member of Health CORE (Centre of Research Excellence) at the Institute of Technology Carlow

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ