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7 Surpising Sources of Running Injuries


How to keep them from cutting into your mileage

The main reason runners get injured is “the toos”: too much, too soon, too quick, or some combination of the three. But running injuries sometimes have deeper, harder-to-identify causes. These are often things that happen in the rest of your life that, over time, take a toll on the body you use to run. Here are seven non-running factors to consider when trying to figure out an injury.

1. Your Parents

You’ve blamed them for everything else, so why not your running injuries?

The construction of what we might call your running chassis–the length of your limbs, the width of your hips, your bone structure, your muscle-fiber type–is largely inherited. These underlying features of your body play a huge role in your running form, and can predispose you to being at greater risk for certain injuries.

For example, if you were born a rigid, high-arched foot and lower-leg bones that curve outward, you’ll probably land hard on the outside of your feet when you run, and may be susceptible to stress fractures in your feet or shins, or strains of the tendons that run along the outside of the foot.

Less visibly, despite your preference for long runs, you may have been born with a high percentage of fast-twitch muscle fibers, which make you more of a natural sprinter. You might therefore struggle more with marathon training and racing than someone who was born with a high percentage of slow-twitch muscle fibers, because your body won’t be as adept at storing muscle glycogen and burning fat.

What To Do About It: Take a look around at the next family reunion and note structural commonalities. Learn what you can about your relatives’ bodily woes, even if your relatives aren’t athletes. Be honest with yourself about inherited conditions that might predispose you to injury. Once you’ve identified them, do regular strength and/or flexibility work that addresses these potential weak spots in your make-up.


2. Your Past

There’s logic behind jokes about old football injuries and other past trauma to the body. A childhood fall, a broken bone that wasn’t reset properly, a car accident, even how you came out of the womb can permanently alter how you carry yourself. Any subtle but seemingly locked-in change in your posture can introduce inefficiencies to your running form that can increase your risk of developing repetitive-strain injuries.

More obviously, if you lived a typical sedentary Western lifestyle for many years before you started running, the body you bring to running could increase your injury risk. Excess weight places tremendous strain on joints, tendons, and ligaments. Inactivity reduces muscular strength and efficiency.

What To Do About It: As with your inherited physical traits, take as complete an inventory as possible of past insults to your body. Look at photos for patterns of holding one shoulder higher, or one hip lower. When you’ve identified imbalances from past trauma, work to correct them with targeted strengthening. If you’re carrying excess weight, take a long-term approach togetting to a good running weight that will lower your impact forces.


3. Your Commute

You probably know a long-time runner who starts squirming after 15 minutes in the car. You might even be that runner, whose hips and hamstrings seize up behind the wheel.

What’s painfully obvious in that runner is an exaggerated version of what happens to everyone’s butt and upper-leg muscles after too much time in the fixed position of driving. The muscles become shortened and weakened, with restricted blood flow. As a result, they not only hamper you on individual runs, especially when you want to go fast, but also become more easily injured, because they’re in a near-constant state of low-level tension. And as these key running muscles become more compromised, they shift some of the load of running to smaller muscles, potentially setting off an endless cycle of injury.

The effect of driving is even more pronounced if you get in the car soon before or after your daily run, as many runners do.

What To Do About It: If you drive more than 30 minutes a day, hamstring,hip, and glute strengthening and flexibility exercises have to be a regular part of your life. While you’re driving, activate the muscles as best you can, such as by squeezing your butt cheeks for 10 seconds every five minutes. This will increase blood flow to and lower tension in the muscles. (And can we interest you in an exciting work-from-home opportunity?!?)


4. Your Job

So if driving 30 minutes a day is bad for your running, what about sitting at a desk for hours upon hours?

You’ve probably heard how bad too much sitting is for overall health. In terms of running injuries, it’s bad for all the reasons driving is, and then some, given how hard maintaining good sitting posture can be. A tightened, shortened lower back can lock up your pelvis and significantly hamper good running form. Sitting at odd angles and with your head thrust forward toward a monitor can also throw you out of alignment enough to carry over to your running.

What To Do About It: If you work at a desk, set up your monitor or other work station so that it’s at eye level. Move your monitor close enough so that you’re not straining to see it. Position your keyboard so that your elbows are bent at 90 degrees to minimize strain on your shoulders. Sit with your center of gravity over your hips and your feet flat on the floor. Angle your chair so that your knees are slightly lower than your hips. No matter how good your sitting posture is, get up and move around at least once an hour. Bonus: A recent studyfound 10 minutes of workplace stretching reduced anxiety and increased vitality.


5. Your Everyday Shoes

Kevin Kirby, a sport podiatrist and marathoner, believes some runners’ views on shoes need perspective.

“They are so worried about everyone’s extra 8 millimeters of heel height during their 30- to 60-minute runs, but are saying nothing about the health effects that wearing shoes with 75 millimeters of heel height and overly tight toe boxes for eight hours per day have on a woman’s feet, knees, and lower back,” Kirby says.

One study found that women who regularly wear high heels had calf muscles that were about 12 percent shorter and Achilles tendons that were about 10 percent more rigid than women who regularly wear flat shoes. A different study showed that basic walking mechanics were different (in a bad way) in women who wore heels at least 40 hours a week compared to women who wore heels less than 10 hours a week. Note to men: The heels in this study were only 5 millimeters high, so this might apply to you as well.

What To Do About It: Walk around the house barefoot. As much as possible, wear flat shoes with a toe box that allows your toes to spread. If heels are unavoidable in your profession, do the best you can to minimize the time you spend in time, such as wearing other shoes when commuting. Also be diligent about calf and Achilles flexibility exercises if you have to wear heels for work.


6. Your Phone

Physiotherapist Phil Wharton tells the story of a struggling high school runner whose problems he ultimately traced to her frequent texting. Being bent in classic texting stance so often and using her thumbs so much had thrown the girl’s shoulders out of alignment, which then affected her core, hips, and leg alignment. (Remember, the hip bone’s connected to the…)

You might think you’re not as much of a texting fiend as the typical high school girl, but there’s little good to be said for any amount of time spent hunched over in front of a phone or other screen. Cocking your head into your phone can also throw your body out of balance. Over time, if your head is permanently thrust forward, or your neck and shoulders stooped, you’ll lose the ability to line up your head, shoulders, hips, and ankles when you run. The hit to your running form can cause compensatory injuries in areas that have to take up more slack than they’re meant to.

What To Do About It: Be mindful of your posture when texting and otherwise using your phone. If heavy phone use is an unavoidable part of your life, be diligent about neck and shoulder stretches. (Wharton recommends these exercises to reset your neck.) If you already run with hunched shoulders, consider occasionally wearing a shoulder brace. Hey, if it’s good enough for Galen Rupp and Mary Cain, isn’t it good enough for you?


7. Your Nightcap?

We’ll go with a question mark rather than a definitive statement here, but consider: In a study that followed more than 80,000 military personnel for one year, researchers said they found an association between moderate weekly alcohol consumption and increased risk of developing Achilles tendon injuries.

It’s possible that alcohol can slow tendon healing. That appeared to be the case in a study involving rats. Some of the rats became gradually accustomed to small amounts of alcohol in their drinking water, while the rest of the rats in the study remained teetotalers. Then researchers purposefully injured the rats’ Achilles tendons. A few weeks later, the rats were euthanized, and their Achilles tendons were examined. Those of the drinking rats had healed significantly less than those of the nondrinking rats.

What To Do About It: If you’re susceptible to injuries in areas that have a poor blood supply, such as the Achilles tendon, see if reducing your alcohol intake makes a difference over time. Many sports medicine professionals recommend reduced alcohol intake when you’re dealing with the acute phase of an injury, to better let the body’s natural inflammation and healing cycles to occur.