It’s every runner’s nightmare: one minute you’re full of the joy of running, the next you’re stuck at home on the sofa with an injury that’s stopped you dead in your tracks. And unfortunately, such scenarios are surprisingly common. According to the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, nearly 70 per cent of runners will become injured in any given year. So, just as you map out strategies to help you get faster, you also need to plan the best route to recovery. Here are our experts’ top dos and don’ts for running rehab…
‘The greatest advice I can give to a runner is, if you’re told by your therapist not to run, do not run,’ says soft-tissue rehab specialist Adam Smith. ‘Of course, many of my patients tell me they’d rather slit their wrists than stop running for a specified time, but this attitude borders on insanity. You simply must rest, do the rehab work, and get specialist treatment to allow your body to heal.’
‘Seventy-five per cent of runners run through injury and pain by masking it with painkillers,’ says Smith. ‘This is likely to make the injury worse and increase your risk of further injury.’ Physiotherapist Tim Allardyce (www.croydonphysio.co.uk) agrees: ‘I’d never recommend taking painkillers, especially when running long distances, as your body produces lactic acid and your liver has to work hard to break it down. Painkillers exacerbate the load on your liver and can be dangerous.’
Non-weight-bearing cardio activities, such as swimming, cycling or aqua-jogging, won’t aggravate your injury and will help maintain your fitness levels.
Every injury is different, so there are no set rules about how soon you can start running again, or how far or often you can run, so it’s essential to get advice from a fitness professional. However, according to Allardyce, as a general rule, never try to run at the same frequency or intensity that you did prior to getting injured. ‘Start with a gentle, flat ten-minute run, and then stop,’ he says. ‘Wait 24 hours, make sure you’re not suffering any recurrence of the pain, and then increase the length of each run by about 10-20 per cent until you’re back to full fitness.’ You should also allow at least 24 to 48 hours between runs. ‘Your body’s fitness levels are not what they were, so give yourself extra time to recover,’ says Allardyce. Running on grass or softer ground can be more comfortable following injury, as it reduces the impact on your legs and back.
‘Instead of thinking about what you can’t do right now, focus on what you’ll be able to do when you’ve recovered,’ says performance coach Rory Coleman (www.colemancoaching.co.uk). Sports hypnotist Adrian Peck (www.adrianpeck.com) agrees: ‘Every day, visualise what you will see, feel and hear once you’re back to full fitness. This will accelerate and maintain your body’s natural healing processes.’
‘Do lots of plank exercises and build up to doing three minutes,’ says Coleman. ‘Not only do they improve core stability, but they strengthen your mind, too, as running’s all about how long you can block out the fatigue of the exercise.’
‘Injured muscles become inflexible when they’re not used, so stretching can help them function properly again by elongating the tissue,’ says Smith. ‘Do not stretch within a week of injury, however, as this could cause further damage. Start with three 30-second stretches daily. After a week, you can progress to doing this routine three times a day.’ Because the stretches need to be tailored to your specific injury, always consult a professional about which stretches to do.
Once the acute phase of the injury is over, sports massage is useful for stimulating blood flow to the injured area, which aids healing. ‘It can also help to get rid of scar tissue,’ says Allardyce. ‘Have one up to twice a week but, if the massage is intense, allow a three-day recovery period.’ Self-massage, using a foam roller, can also help to ease muscle tightness.
‘Once you’re up and running again, attend a running injury-prevention class once a week, or if none’s available, seek out a Pilates or yoga class,’ says Smith. ‘Focus on balancing the imbalances that probably led to the injury by strengthening the weak areas. You’ll come back stronger, injury-free and injury-proofed – and ready to go smash your old PB!’
‘In 2011 my dream of doing the Boston Marathon got a step closer when I ran a qualifying marathon in 3:47,’ says Sue Cesarini, 53. ‘I trained five times a week but my right foot became painful and I was diagnosed with metatarsalgia [pain in the ball of the foot] and told I couldn’t do Boston. Initially, I was angry, but then I began swimming for 90 minutes daily instead. Competing in my first open-water 5K race was incredibly energising – and made me realise that I’m still an athlete! I know my injury will eventually heal and in the meantime I’m staying active, so when that day comes I’ll be fitter than ever before.’
‘I caught the running bug while on an Alpine running holiday,’ says Andrea Rinaldi, 35. ‘My goal was to do a 10K race but I increased my distance and pace too quickly and so suffered shin splints and an ankle injury after a month. I should’ve sought professional advice but instead I continued training and eventually had to stop running for a few weeks, which was frustrating. While recovering I did Pilates and spin classes, and after two months I could resume training. Running again is giving me a buzz and I feel a huge sense achievement for overcoming my injury.’