Navigating the niggles

You’re midway through an otherwise phenomenal run. You’re feeling strong, just tackled that dreaded hill and have fully entered the zone. Suddenly, your heart sinks a bit as you feel a niggle coming on. Whether it’s an ache in your foot, a twinge in your knee, or tightness in your hip, these minor discomforts can be majorly disconcerting. Maybe it will dissipate in a minute … or maybe it will evolve into a serious injury. Sure, a smart runner will listen to their body. That’s easy enough when your body is screaming adamantly “Your foot is broken, dummy!” But how do you respond when your body mumbles incoherently “Yeah, I’m not feeling so hot. The ankle feels kinda blah … you might want to check it out … or not … I don’t care”. In these situations, neither intense trepidation nor denial of the warning signs are ideal approaches. But don’t fret, runner. There is in fact a middle ground on which you can cautiously and safely test the injury waters.

1. SLOW DOWN, SWITCH IT UP, SHAKE IT OUT

Sometimes a simple correction is all you need. If that niggle arose from pushing too hard, just slowing your pace could reset you back to normal.

We often think of over-use injuries as emerging after many days or weeks of too much running. But sometimes monotonous motion – even over the course of several minutes – can trigger over-use symptoms. If you’ve been running on the road, find some grass or trail. If the terrain’s been rough or uneven – for instance, a rocky path or canted road – switch to something more stable. The slight change in muscle engagement might be all you need.

If these quick fixes don’t fix, stop and shake it out for just a moment. Sadly, many of us have been taught that running breaks are a sign of weakness. Believe me, running yourself into a broken bone or torn tendon will leave you much weaker than had you taken a brief pause. Even a 30-second rest might allow an overworked muscle to recuperate, leaving you refreshed for the rest of your run.

2. FOCUS ON FORM

The onset of a niggle is the perfect time to check back in with your body. Often, a slight form correction can nip the problem in the bud. It’s not always obvious where the imbalance is coming from, so scanning the body – from tip to toe – will cover your bases.

Good running form, courtesy of the Mark Cucuzzella and the Natural Running Center.

Good running form, courtesy of the Mark Cucuzzella and the Natural Running Center.

Head. Starting with your head, assess your posture. Imagine a string pulling your head up from your shoulders, elongating your neck and spine into a tall, straight line. Keep the shoulders relaxed but don’t forget to keep the arms bent and active. The rhythm of your arm swing can have a powerful impact on your running cadence – which we all know is a critical element to strong, healthy running.

Core. Moving down, evaluate your hips and core. Stability in these regions are perhaps the most essential component of good running form, and – as the term implies – comprise the core of a runner’s stride. Imagine your hips on an even horizontal plane, the right and left hip bones perfectly aligned, neither dipping nor rotating with your stride. Keep a slight lean in the upper body, visualizing a straight planE from head to toe angled forward, being mindful not to bend at the hips.

Legs. Next come the legs. Bend the knees, and keep the gluts and hamstrings active. Check where your feet are landing. They should contact the ground directly under the hip, not in front (this is ovestriding – an all-too-common source of many problems!), nor at the midline (this is a cross-over gait, which can be the source of many lateral injuries). Sometimes mentally exaggerating these features can help achieve them – for instance, aim to make foot contact behind and to the outside (laterally) of your hips. You’ll likely end up striking right under the hips.

Feet. Lastly, check in with your feet. Keep them relaxed – your foot muscles are not “power muscles” as are your quads, gluts and abs, and thus should not be relied on to propel you through your stride. Especially if you are running barefoot or minimalist, there can be a tendency to unnecessarily over-engage the feet. Imagine landing as lightly as possible, lifting the foot at the moment it touches the ground, rather than pounding or slapping. And of course, keep your cadence high. Aim for a balanced foot strike that’s neither excessively fore-foot nor rear-foot. I find that focusing on a “pancake-flat” foot-strike (forefoot and heel striking simultaneously) works best for me, but play with this to find your comfort zone.

3. UNEARTH THE ROOT OF THE PROBLEM

Modifying your speed, terrain or form are great quick fixes for mid-run niggles. But the critical question for preventing a recurrent, or long-term injury, is what caused the problem in the first place? This is some great food for thought for the remainder of your run … reflect on what you were doing leading up to the onset of the problem. Revisit not only the moments before, but also the days and weeks before. Did you just summit a monster hill? Maybe you’ve incorporated more speed work than normal this week, or have been pushing your mileage recently. Subtle changes, even those unrelated to your training, can impact your running health. Sleep deprivation, poor diet or stress can all work against a runner, impeding recovery, promoting inflammation or increasing fatigue. Chances are, you might be battling several of these aggravators, making it challenging to pinpoint one root cause. So go ahead, take an extra rest day, treat yourself to a deep-tissue massage and indulge in an extra hour of sleep.

And remember, a niggle’s nothing more, unless you let it be. Embrace these moments as learning tools and you’ll only grow stronger and healthier!

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One thought on “Navigating the niggles

  1. dr24hours says:

    I’ve noticed I get specific niggles at specific times in runs. I get lower back tightness/ache at miles 3, 7, and 10. It always resolves in about half to three-quarters of a mile. Same thing can happen behind my right knee. Or nerve pain in my neck. But I know when to expect it, and stretching or consciously relaxing can really help.

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