A few weeks ago, I was working with a female runner who asked me, “Will I ever run pain-free again?”
This is a question that I receive regularly, and one which I have to admit having a really tough time answering.
Pain is a part of the running experience, there is absolutely no doubt about it. The best — and possibly the only — way to mitigate your risk of a running-related injury is to stop running.
I’m not saying this because I don’t believe that you can run pain-free. I’m saying it because I believe in transparency and it doesn’t make sense for me to lie to you.
So what did I say to that runner? I turned to her and said, “There is pain, and then there is suffering, I’m OK with a little bit of pain; it’s when the joy of the activity is lost that we might want to course correct.”
And herein lies the crux of pain and running: no one other than you can decide where that line is drawn between pain and suffering.
This can be a very difficult thing to understand — in your body and in your mind — when you are scared about what you’re feeling, fearful of the future, or simply uncertain about how to proceed. Below are five important things I usually recommend to runners to help them:
Reduce pain with running.
Foster a sense of hope.
Increase their resiliency.
Please know that it is wise to speak to your physical therapist if you find that your running-related pain is disconcerting and is causing challenges in your life.
1. Prioritize Training Consistency
One of the best strategies to reduce pain with running — believe it or not — is to run more frequently.
Of course, I say this with a bit of caution because some conditions, such as bone stress injuries, definitely don’t get better by running more and there certainly are situations where we might want to advise refraining from running altogether. However, for most runners, consistency in training is key.
The number one problem that I see with my clients who run, by far, is a lack of consistency in training habits and routines. This creates a number of different challenges, but the most notable one is the lack of opportunity for your tissues to build their capacity and eventually tolerate running.
Running is a skill after all: the more you run, the better you get at that skill, and the better your tissues also adapt to that skill.
2. Increase Your Step Rate
This is an important window of opportunity to help reduce running-related pain.
Step rate, or cadence, is defined as the number of steps you take per minute. Research suggests that subtle changes to your preferred step rate can make a world of difference to the pain you feel in your legs when running.
Specifically, one study showed that by increasing your preferred step rate by 5 to 10 percent, you can reduce the loading to your hip and knee joints fairly substantially.1 By reducing the loading to your hip and knee joints this way, you might find that running is more comfortable and even more efficient.
3. Strength Train
Strength training is an underutilized golden nugget for runners. An appropriately loaded strength training routine goes a long way to support a runner’s quest to feel strong and healthy while running.
Strength training has been shown to:
Increase your tissue tolerance.
Improve your running
Improve endurance performance.
Improve maximal speed.
Increase your rate of force development
Make you stronger (that’s the most obvious).2
And while stronger doesn’t mean injury- or pain-free, it does mean that you unlock a certain level of badassery that can foster the sense of resiliency you need to feel good — dare I say it, great — in your body as a runner.
I have some favorites exercises that I like with runners and they include the following:
Bulgarian Split Squats
4. Sleep and Recover Adequately
I cannot emphasize this enough: your sleep and recovery are vital to your training success and pain reduction. If you aren’t sleeping enough, you better believe that you’ll have a harder time feeling good as a runner.
I get asked all the time, “What is recovery supposed to look like?” Here’s the short and probably disappointing answer: nothing in particular. To me, as the professional, recovery is going to be anything that fills you up and recharges your batteries.
Recovery is made up of the things that nurture your soul and don’t stress your ecosystem as an athlete.
While sleep is considered a huge part of recovery for me and the athletes I work with, so is joy. There is nothing more wonderful than sitting on the couch after a long run or waking up after a full eight hours of sleep and drinking a cup of coffee in the morning. These are the things that fill me up and recharge my batteries.
5. See Yourself as the Badass Runner You Are
Finally, the last thing that I’m going to include here, is that you absolutely need to believe in yourself and in your body’s ability to adapt.
It is very easy to think, “I’m not made to be a runner,” when culturally we are conditioned to think runners need to look a particular way. But I am here to dispell those inaccurate notions: you are absolutely made to be a runner!
When you start believing in your most badass self as a runner, your body will start to embody it.
So here’s the deal: running isn’t a pain-free sport. But remember, you don’t have to suffer, and that there are teams of people (including me) who are ready, willing and able to help you reach your potential.
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Dr. Ellie Somers is a physical therapist of 10 years, with a special focus on treating the female athlete. She has a background in sports performance and rehab, including extensive training and education in the science of pain. She started her practice, Sisu Sports Performance & PT, in Seattle, WA with the goal of empowering female clients to help them reach their unlocked potential. She hopes to keep women actively engaged in sport and activity for their lifetime. Dr. Somers has spoken at the Women in Physical Therapy Summit in New York City as well as at several continuing education courses and professional conferences. She is a lover of soccer, running, heavy things, craft beer, and the great PNW. You can follow Dr. Somers on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter!