For serious and recreational runners alike, nothing beats lacing up a pair of running shoes and hitting the pavement. Running is an excellent way to attain cardiovascular fitness. It makes the most of your heart and lung function. It develops strong legs, especially from running up and down hills. Postural muscles such as back and abdominals also get exercised as they work to allow you to keep good form.
One of the advantages of running is the minimal equipment needed. A good pair of running shoes, either a flexible pair if you have a high arch or a very supportive pair if you have flat feet, is all you need. Then after you carefully stretch, just open the door or hop on a treadmill, and you’re off.
Another advantage of running is that it doesn’t require extensive instruction, and it can be done alone, with a friend or in a group. The experience can be enhanced by different settings or various times of day.
Consistent running releases substances called endorphins that are produced in the brain. This morphine-like substance is what people refer to as a “runner’s high”. It elevates your mood, decreases your appetite, and gives you an overall feeling of well being.
In addition to receiving the pleasurable results of endorphins, you may run for stress relief. You can get away from the nerve-wracking phone calls, a crazy work pace, or other stressful situations. The repetitive rhythm of the feet hitting the ground is a mantra for focused attention, especially when you find your pace. At that point, it feels like you can run forever.
The compressive forces on the ankles, knees, hips and spine are both a blessing and a bane. On the one hand, bone cells lay down bone in response to forces transmitted through the long shaft of bones. This means that a runner has much less chance of developing osteoporosis than a non-runner, as long as both have the appropriate nutritional intake.
There is, however, a downside to these compressive forces. Normal joint space allowing free movement of the ankles, knees, hips and spine can be compromised, making one or more of these joints feel achy and stiff. Muscle imbalances, which are commonplace in runners and non-runners alike, are amplified with the pounding of each step.
The importance of listening to your body if you develop different injuries is key. For example, the development of shin splints is often an indicator that, among other things, your calf muscles are too tight. Shin splints are commonly an inflammation of the anterior tibialis muscle, which is found on the front right of your tibia (shinbone). This muscle prevents the front of your foot from slapping down as your heel makes contact with the pavement. When the calf muscles are too tight, the anterior tibialis muscle works much harder to control the foot slap and the muscle starts to create tension on its attachment to the tibia. Running up and down hills worsens this condition.
Treatment for shin splints may include ice and rest but as always, you should contact your doctor with your concerns.
Other injuries, such as plantar fascitis (inflammation of the tough tissue on the sole of your foot and heel), chondromalacia (a roughening of the underside of the knee cap causing knee pain), patella-femoral syndrome (painful knee caused by the imbalance tracking of the knee cap when you bend and straighten your knee) or a variety of muscle strains including hamstring, groin and calf strains are all indicators that there are imbalances in your body’s alignment that make these muscles work too hard. When the stresses of running are added to these imbalances, which may not be painful until you run, your body rebels.
Doing your part to avoid creating imbalances is very helpful. For example, avoid running on road surfaces that are slightly slanted or crowned. But if you are limited to running on these surfaces, switch sides frequently. The same is true for running on a track, since the circular motion around a track will put more pressure on the outside leg. The smaller the track, the greater the problem, so make sure to change directions half way through your run. Running on softer trails provides less compressive force than pavement, but check your footing!
Lastly, it is important to maintain flexibility in your back, hips, knees and ankles. A solid stretching program, which addresses the mobility in these joints as well as the balance in the muscles of these areas, is an important step in reducing injuries and identifying imbalances. These can then be treated by a visit to a physical therapist.
Remember, be fit, run strong.