Updated: August 29th, 2012
An Ounce of Prevention: Avoiding Running Injuries throughout your Training (Part I)

With the fall race season peeking over the horizon, running newbies and veterans alike are beginning to train for races of all lengths, types, and sizes. With the promise of faster times, quicker feet, and longer distances fresh in the mind of runners everywhere, it’s crucial to maintain a focus on healthy activities to help prevent running injuries. Rising temperatures make muscles work harder, staying hydrated more difficult, and keeping healthy all the more challenging—but by maintaining healthy stretching and hydration habits, runners can make the most of the sunshine and get their training off to a great start. Tips on preventing muscle and joint injuries can also be used year-round to keep runners injury-free and ready to go the distance.

It goes without saying that runners know how to push through pain—cramps and discomfort can strike from head to toe. The following is a summary of common aches and pains by body region, with each section of containing tips on preventing discomfort before it starts, and alleviating symptoms after they’ve settled in. As with all injuries, it is important to seek the advice of a licensed physician before taking on additional mileage, whenever injury symptoms make daily activities difficult, or when aches and pains do not improve within 48 hours.

Head and Shoulders

Heat Exhaustion, Heat Stroke, and Dehydration

One of the most common concerns attributed to warm-weather running is heat stroke and dehydration. Heat stroke occurs when the body’s metabolic system cannot dissipate heat fast enough, causing the core body temperature to elevate above safe levels. Heat stroke is commonly brought on by dehydration, which is a result of a body not being able to produce enough sweat due to a lack of fluids. When dehydrated, the body cannot sweat fast enough to dissipate heat, causing dizziness, headaches, faintness, nausea, hallucinations, and shortness of breath. During the heat of summer, heat exhaustion and heat stroke become more likely as runners hit the streets in spite of climbing temperatures. In some cases, heat stroke can mimic the symptoms of a heart attack.

To combat heat stroke, heat exhaustion, and dehydration, runners should:

  • Consume plenty of fluids (with a heavy emphasis on water and electrolyte sports drinks post-run)
  • Plan runs for sunrise and/or sunset
  • Keep slower paces than usual. As temperatures rise, the body requires a few weeks of acclimation before regular exercise can resume.

Shoulder and Neck Cramps

As with many cramping issues, shoulder and neck muscle cramps are usually the result of a change in form or posture. When runners are training through soreness, breaking in a new pair of shoes, or altering their stride (either consciously or subconsciously), muscle groups throughout the body contract in new ways to counterbalance the different forces of a different running style. Though uncomfortable, cramps are typically acute and will dissipate after activity if tended to properly.

To combat these aches and pains, runners should:

  • Establish and follow a thorough stretching routine, as stiff muscle groups can pull upon other sets of muscles when not warmed up properly before exercise
  • Work on form and posture, as good form and straight posture can alleviate shearing forces (the source of most muscular and joint pain) from affecting the body.
  • Consume plenty of liquids throughout the day, as hydration alleviates many cramping and soreness issues resulting from endurance activities.

Chest and Torso

Note: It is essential that any runner experiencing chest pain and/or numbness of the extremities call an ambulance and cease activity. Beginners and veteran runners alike could be susceptible to heart conditions including heart attacks and congenital defects. If a newcomer to running has a history of heart conditions, a training plan should only be considered after discussions with a doctor.

Side Cramping and Side Stitches

Side stitches are among the most common aches and pains faced by runners. Side stitches are an intense, acute pain felt under the lower ribcage. While the cause for side stitches is still undetermined, it is possible to prevent symptoms through controlled, rhythmic breathing and proper stretching.

To combat side stitches, runners should:

  • Build endurance at slower paces. Side stitches are typically a symptom of going too hard, too quickly and can be alleviated by slowing down until pain subsides.
  • Practice consistent breathing techniques. Timing breaths to occur on the left foot can prevent right-side cramping in many runners. By coordinating inhalation and exhalation with footfalls, runners can prevent side-specific muscles from over-stretching during respiration
  • Build core strength—upper-body exercises such as crunches can make muscles more resilient and less prone to cramping
  • Ensure that their torso is included in pre-run stretching. Yoga poses focusing on the chest can prevent cramping before it occurs, and provides an excellent opportunity for cross-training.

Nausea and Gastrointestinal Distress

It has been said that a runner earns his or her stripes when they’ve dealt with stomach cramps, intestinal discomfort, or what is referred to affectionately as “the trots.” Eating too close to running, eating too little prior to a run, and going out for unexpected distances can create stomach issues for many runners. Preventing stomach cramps – and much more severe stomach issues – can be as simple as altering eating schedules or changing foods before running.

To prevent nausea and gastrointestinal distress, runners should:

  • Stick to plain foods prior to running. Many runners will find a light breakfast which has not caused previous stomach problems and stay with it. While variety is the spice of life, a runner’s stomach thrives on routine.
  • Avoid dairy products. While this may not be true for all, some runners find their stomachs are less-equipped to tackle complex dairy enzymes during a run, which can lead to stomach gas and diarrhea.
  • Drink plenty of fluids. A common cause of diarrhea is dehydration, which then compounds hydration issues due to further fluid loss. Make sure to drink plenty of water and sports drinks when necessary.
  • Avoid artificial sweeteners. Zylitol and other sugar substitutes have been known to cause intestinal distress in some runners.

By Brian O’Connor
Photo Courtesy: Paul Holloway

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