Runners: How to Fully Recover from a Leg Injury
Poor form, such as overstriding or landing too heavily on your feet, can also contribute to leg injuries over time. Your body sends pain signals when something isn't right, so be sure to listen to it and take action when you experience an injury. Read on to learn about running injuries and leg injury recovery.
Common Runner Injuries
Here are some of the most common running injuries reported by long-term runners:
If you change your direction or speed suddenly, or land awkwardly on your foot while running, you could pull a hamstring, calf, or other muscle. When a muscle is pulled, it stretches beyond its normal range of motion, causing some muscle fibers to tear. This can cause pain, swelling, and inflammation in the area.
Runner's knee results in pain in the front of the knee joint due to irritation of the cartilage under the kneecap. It's caused by overuse of the knee joint and repeated stress on it. Running with improper form, such as landing heavily on the heels or overpronating, can increase the stress on the knee joint.
Shin splints involve pain and inflammation in the front of the lower leg, often caused by overuse, improper footwear, or running on hard surfaces.
A sprain is an injury to a ligament, which is a band of tissue that connects bones to each other at a joint. Ankle sprains happen when your ankle is twisted or turned in an abnormal way, causing the ligament to stretch or tear. Not stretching before running can make the muscles and ligaments around the ankle less flexible and more prone to injury. Running on uneven or unstable surfaces can increase the risk of ankle sprains.
Hip Flexor Strain
Strains are when a muscle or tendon is stretched or torn, usually as a result of overuse, sudden movements, or muscle imbalance. If you overstride or land heavily on your heels, this places extra stress on your hip flexors. Weakness or imbalances in the hip flexor muscles can also lead to strain. For example, if the hip flexors are weaker than the glutes or hamstrings, the hip flexors may have to work harder to lift the leg during running, which can lead to strain.
Stress fractures are small cracks or breaks in bones that are caused by repetitive force or overuse. Runners are at risk of developing stress fractures because of the repetitive impact the feet and legs experience while running.
This is a common injury in which the plantar fascia, a thick band of tissue that runs along the bottom of the foot, becomes inflamed, causing pain in the heel and arch of the foot.
This is inflammation of the Achilles tendon, which is located at the back of your ankle. The Achilles tendon connects the calf muscles to the heel bone, and its repetitive overuse can cause pain and stiffness in the lower leg and heel.
IT Band Syndrome
IT band syndrome refers to pain and inflammation of the iliotibial (IT) band, a thick band of tissue that runs from the hip to the knee, and can cause pain on the outer part of the knee.
The RICE Method for Injury Recovery
Whether you pulled a muscle or sprained a joint, the first step is to use the RICE method. RICE stands for Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation.
The first and most important step in recovering from a leg injury is to rest your injured leg. Throughout its recovery, use your leg as little as possible and avoid running or any other high-impact exercise.
Applying ice to the injured area can help reduce inflammation and pain. Inflammation is a natural response to injury, but excessive inflammation can delay the healing process and cause additional tissue damage. Use an ice pack for 15-20 minutes at a time, several times a day.
Compression can help reduce swelling and provide support for the injured area. Use a compression sleeve or compression bandaging to wrap the affected area.
Elevating your injured leg helps you fight the pull of gravity and reduce swelling at the leg injury site. Prop your leg up on a chair when you're sitting or place a pillow under it when you're lying down.
Supplements that Support Injury Recovery
The body requires nutrients to heal from injury, and certain supplements are known to support the process.
When you suffer an injury, your body needs extra protein to repair the damaged tissues. Protein powders, especially those that contain high-quality protein such as whey, casein, or soy, can provide your body with the necessary amino acids required for muscle repair and growth.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential nutrients required to form cell membranes throughout the body. Given new cells must form to repair damaged tissue, omega-3 fats are critical for injury recovery. Omega-3s can also increase the production of collagen — a protein needed for repairing connective tissue, such as tendons and ligaments.
Finally, omega-3s reduce the production of inflammatory cytokines, which can help with swelling in the injured area. You can take omega-3 as fish oil supplements, or incorporate more fish into your diet.
Vitamin D plays a role in bone health and can help support the healing of fractures and other bone injuries. It helps the body absorb calcium from the diet, which plays a role in bone repair, as well as muscle and nerve function. Vitamin D also has anti-inflammatory effects that can help speed your recovery.
Creatine has been studied for its potential benefits in injury recovery, particularly in the areas of muscle and bone healing. Creatine supplementation has been shown to improve muscle recovery after strenuous exercise or injury.
Glucosamine and Chondroitin
Glucosamine and chondroitin can help reduce pain and inflammation associated with injuries. They're commonly found in combination supplements, as they're found in studies to treat joint problems like knee osteoarthritis.
Collagen is a protein that forms the structural framework of many tissues in the body, including skin, tendons, ligaments, and cartilage. Vitamin C is necessary for the synthesis of collagen, which means it plays a vital role in tissue repair. Vitamin C is a protective antioxidant, which helps protect cells from oxidative stress. This is particularly important during the healing process, as injured tissues are under increased oxidative stress.
Returning to Running After Injury
Once the initial inflammation has subsided, physical therapy can help improve flexibility, strength, and range of motion in the injured leg. A physical therapist can develop a customized plan of exercises to help you recover.
When you're ready to return to running, start with short distances and slow speeds. Gradually increase your mileage and intensity over time to avoid re-injury.
Recovering from a Running Leg Injury
Injury recovery takes time, patience, and plenty of self-care. Taking supplements shown to help with injury recoveries, such as creatine, glucosamine, chondroitin, and vitamin D can help you get back to running slowly but surely. Proper running form, stretching, warm-up and cool-down exercises, and appropriate footwear can help reduce your risk of injury.