If you’re like most of my runner (or other active) friends, the first twinge in your hammie or swelling in your knee is more likely to lead you to Dr. Google than the doctor’s office.
You can certainly find reliable injury-related info online if you know where to look. But you also risk getting sucked into a black pit of despair and sketchy DIY remedies. The problem with self-diagnosing athletic injuries, you see, is that these problems aren’t always what they seem.
Take runner’s knee. As I learned doing reporting for a feature in the March issue of Runner’s World, this common ache behind the kneecap often starts not in the joint itself, but higher up, with weakness or flawed running mechanics in your hips.
In fact, researchers have linked an increasing array of running injuries—from IT band syndrome to hamstring strains to Achilles tendinitis—to hip problems. While you can ice, foam roll, and rest all you like, these problems may hang around or keep coming back unless you take steps to address the underlying issue.
If you’re a runner, check out the article and the accompanying online videos; you’ll find a complete series of self-tests for hip problems, an exercise program to correct them, and cues to perfect your running form so you can deploy all that newfound strength at just the right point in your stride.
Even if running’s not your thing, you can learn something from the experts I interviewed. Their advice can help you prevent injuries—and give you hope if you do find yourself facing a setback. For instance:
- Prehab works. Targeted strength and mobility moves BEFORE you get hurt can help reduce your chances of having to take time off later on. This is especially true if you have one primary, repetitive sport, like running, swimming, or cycling. It’s worth checking in with a coach or experienced athlete—or reading publications dedicated to that pursuit—for ideas on ways to keep yourself balanced and maybe even improve your performance. (Runners: Coach Jay Johnson, who I quote in the article, has a great progression of strength and mobility exercises.)
- Don’t ignore pain. If your joints or muscles ache in a new way for more than a couple of days, you should seriously consider seeing a physical therapist, chiropractor, sports medicine physician or other pro. The way your brain processes pain actually changes as time passes, according to University of Kentucky physical therapist and biomechanics researcher Brian Noehren. He said he’d much rather see injured runners early on—when a short course of treatment could get them back on the trail—vs. later, when nerve signals that carry pain become much more difficult to switch off.
- But, don’t let it completely stop you. Certain serious injuries, like stress fractures, require complete rest to heal. But in other cases, you can keep up your routine with a few tweaks. Colleen Brough, a physical therapist in New York, told me she treats many runners who develop pain while ramping up for a marathon or other big goal. By using strengthening moves and running cues similar to the ones we give in the article, she helps them manage their pain so they can keep training and racing. That’s another reason to get help, though—to get guidance on exactly how to move forward without doing further damage to your body.
It’d be great if we all possessed superhuman bodies that never strained, sprained, or cracked. But of course, even professional athletes often find themselves on the disabled list. Push yourself to the limit often enough and eventually, you’re going to push just a little too far. Taking steps to learn about your underlying weaknesses and address them can prevent that from happening—or at the very least, speed your recovery when you do get hurt.
Cindy Kuzma is a freelance health and fitness writer, contributing editor at Runner’s World magazine, and marathoner. Read more of her work at www.cindykuzma.com.