The horizon is calling. You want to get out there and move, not cool your heels indoors.
But if you’ve been running for any length of time, you’ve probably been hurt yourself or heard from someone who has. Taking precautions before you run can help you stay healthy — and running — for longer.
Runners also know the value of mental toughness. Being physically ready will give you the attitude boost to feel more confident on your feet.
We talked to Sheila Klausner, a physical therapist for Florida Hospital Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation, about ways to prepare your body and mind for a safe and successful run. An experienced professional, her career has taken her to the Olympic Games in 2000 and 2004 to assist the USA Swimming National Team.
Running: A full-body experience
It may seem as if your middle and upper body are just along for the ride, but Klausner says runners should pay attention to their entire body.
“The whole body is engaged with running — not just the legs.”
Some of the most important running muscles are also the most overlooked.
“The gluteus maximus and gluteus medius are major contributing muscles to controlling the position of the leg as it hits the ground,” she says. “The power of the buttock muscles can prevent many knee and ankle injuries.”
If your glutes are too weak, you risk your legs caving inward while you run, which can cause injury.
She recommends runners build their rotational strength through specific, targeted exercises that correct their individual weaknesses. The best way to design such a program is through consultation with a physical therapist.
One simple exercise Klausner often teaches to runners involves the use of a resistive band around the ankles. Side-stepping with this band will help develop your abductor muscles, which can make you a more stable runner.
Runners also sometimes overlook their spine. The result: gravity’s tug will be tougher to resist, leading your body to naturally slouch and round your shoulders forward.
“It’s the same principle — muscles that are tight or weak won’t hold the body straight,” Klausner says.
Simple plank exercises — where the shoulder, buttocks, and legs are held stable in a straight line — can be helpful.
If you’re like most of us, stretching has always been an unquestioned part of getting ready for exercise.
But scientific studies are surprisingly conflicted when it comes to the value of stretching to prevent muscle injury.
In 2017, a team from the United Kingdom and Australia reviewed earlier studies around how well stretching helps us run and protects us from injury. They didn’t pull their punches, writing “The majority of studies suggest that stretching has no impact on the risk of chronic injury in endurance runners.”
Furthermore, studies have found stretching may actually make you less effective as a runner. One study found that the most economical runners — meaning their muscles required the least energy per mile — had the lowest flexibility.
Why? The authors suggest it’s because stretching makes your muscles more elastic, reducing the potential energy they can generate through a contraction. Think of a spring
that’s been stretched out too far.
“In the scientific literature, you can find both pros and cons to stretching. In my clinical experience, the best time to stretch is after it’s warm,” says Klausner, who also provides physical therapy for the University of Central Florida’s Athletics Department.
So, instead of stretching and taking off running, do your stretches after a warm-up.
“Traditionally, so many people stretch cold, which can injure the tissue,” she says. “That’s possibly where stretching might be getting a bad rap.”
It’s about taking care of your muscles to ensure they can do what you ask of them, Klausner explains.
“If the muscle is tight, it can’t move through the full arc of motion,” she says. “There may not be an exact correlation to preventing injury, but stretching is an important piece of the puzzle.”
Personally, Klausner finds both mental and physical benefits from stretching. The former collegiate swimmer swears by yoga.
“For me, stretching during yoga helps my muscles feel better while lengthening them,” she says.
But yoga, or any sort of stretching, might not work for you. As with so much about the way your body moves, what works for one person may fail for the next.
“There are definitely people who could stretch every day and not feel better or see changes,” she says. Instead of seeking the “right” answer, Klausner says a good place to start is to ask the right questions.
What’s up with pain?
Especially for long-distance or competitive runners, pain is unavoidable. Your muscles will run out of oxygen and start to produce lactic acid, which will burn.
Runners sometimes describe their pain as an almost spiritual experience. At the same time, pain is the body’s early warning system
“Pain is a message from our brains that something isn’t right,” she says. However, pain varies tremendously from person-to-person.
“The adage ‘no pain, no gain’ can sometimes help you and sometimes hurt you,” Klausner says. Like many physical therapists, she often asks patients to rate their pain on a 1 to 10 scale both at rest and during exercise.
Warning signs include pain at rest and pain that recurs during exercise.
“If you continue with your athletic activity and your pain spikes, you definitely need to listen to your body,” she says.
A whole-person experience
Running isn’t just about the body; some runners describe their hobby as a holistic experience. It may be about the focusing of willpower, the testing of one’s mental limitations or the hard-to-describe feeling of being “in the flow.”
Seeing a physical therapist can give you the big picture, one that includes your mind, body, and spirit. They can teach you how your diet, habits and your body can either conspire to trip you up or put you on the road to run safely.
Moreover, the team spans medical disciplines that support you physically, emotionally and spiritually to help you live a full life.