Why Running Hurts and What You Can Do About it

Pain is a harsh reality for many of us who choose to run as a means of getting fit.

Sore knees, ankles, shins or hips lead us to believe that we’re simply not built to run.

This is a real shame because the majority of these pains can be completely eliminated with some targeted injury prevention work.

Almost any niggle which gets progressively worse when we run is simply a result of certain muscles becoming stronger and shorter. When muscles shorten to a certain length they either pull bones out of their natural position or cause inflammation at the site where muscle attaches to bone, via ligaments.

Sore Knees while Running

One of the most common niggling pains people associate with running is a soreness which develops around the kneecap.

This pain is usually as a result of the front and outer thigh muscles pulling the kneecap out of the position it is most comfortable in when running.

Every time our foot lands the thigh catches our entire body weight which can result in a reasonable amount of muscle damage after enough foot steps. This then leads to the muscle repairing in a slightly shorter position unless we do something to bring the muscle back to its normal length.

Knots of repaired muscle tissue form in the muscle which effectively prevent it from releasing back to its healthy length.

Massage for Runners

Massage is an effective way of getting rid of the knots. If you’ve ever had a sports massage you’ll have noticed that the therapist will gravitate towards the knots and apply pressure to effectively smooth them out.

Professional Massage can be an expensive way to get rid of knots and although its more effective, self massage can do the job too. Foam rollers allow us to roll tight muscles over them, achieving a blunter version of a massage therapist’s hands. Rolling and holding pressure on the most sensitive knots is a great thing to do just before stretching the tight muscle.

Unfortunately, sports massage and rolling hurt when muscles are tight so it helps if you can learn how to adjust pressure on the muscle to make it bearable. Some will say the more pain the better the outcome but we tend to keep away from pain we cannot control so it’s best you learn how to control the pressure if you want to make the most of this effect injury prevention strategy.

As a general guide: if massaging a muscle hurts like hell then it’s probably one of the muscles causing the joint or bone pain you’re experiencing after or during your runs.

Stretching for Running Flexibility

Most of us do some form of warm up or warm down stretching for the thighs but few spend the time required to bring about lasting changes in the length of the muscle. Flexibility stretching requires a minimum of 60 seconds per muscle to bring about lasting improvements but even doing this each run is unlikely to be enough if we’re running regularly.

There are a lot of other activities which shorten the thigh muscles. Just sitting at a desk or standing up for extended periods of time can encourage the muscles to shrink to better accommodate that position. Strength exercises such as the squat, lunge, leg press and any jumping exercises lead to strengthening and shortening of the thigh muscles. Ditto, rowing and cycling, skipping and every push off from the wall when we swim.

The reason running tends to remind us about the sore knees more than these other activities is the impact but if the muscles were not so inflexible then they may not hurt at all.

It’s easy to visualise the pain from running coming as two bones are squashed together by the weight of the body as it lands from each step but this is rarely the cause of knee pain unless there has been significant wear of cartilage or an accident where cartilage or other joint padding has been damaged.

Other Injury Prevention Strategies

Strength and stability training can also improve the muscle’s ability to cushion landing forces but unless the muscles are free and flexible they can still cause pain.

Another sure cause of running injuries is simply going too fast and or too far. If we haven’t run 5k in the last two months then running 10k with any amount of speed is going put a lot of stress on the muscles, ligaments and bones of our legs.

We all love the feeling of running fast enough to get our lungs working but in order to make this happen we have to run reasonably fast for our current running ability. Our legs need to do some short and slow runs to build up some durability before they can handle regular high intensity runs.

Run at a pace which you can maintain a comfortable conversation at when getting back into running. Your legs will start to feel heavy and that’s a good sign that they’ve had enough for that particular run. With any luck you’ll have a small amount of muscle soreness which you can stretch out over a couple of days, then get back out for another run.

This is far more effective than obliterating your legs by running too fast, not stretching or massaging then doing the same thing, only faster a week later when your legs have finally recovered from the previous workout.

Summary

If you avoid running for fear it’ll aggravate a niggling joint then don’t give up hope. Start rolling and stretching your calfs, front and outer thigh to address pains in the shins, knees or achilles tendon. Progressively rebuild your running distances at conservative speeds and you’ll find that the pains have simply stopped.

This article has provided some ideas for how you can stop running from causing you pain but figuring out exactly what your personal causes of pain are is obviously not possible without assessing your situation.

 

About the Author

Conor is the Head Coach and Founder of Cheltenham Running Club. His experience as a Strength & Conditioning Coach, Triathlete and Personal Trainer ensure members are educated on best practice in regards to training progression while also nurtured through the early stages of fitness development.

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