I am now about one month into my training for the mini-Marathon and things are going well, but I did suffer my first setback this past week. I did some interval runs last Monday, and they were difficult but I didn’t have any problem finishing them. However, I did notice that my hamstrings were tight later that night. I didn’t think too much of it until the next day, as I was almost finished with a 3 mile run and seemingly out of nowhere came that all-too-familiar shooting, cramping pain in the back of my left thigh. I knew instantly I had strained my hamstring, but since I was on the treadmill I couldn’t stop right away. I’ll admit that I don’t wear the safety kill switch clip that most treadmills have. I learned the hard way that it’s quite difficult to press tiny little buttons while you are running and every step with your left leg causes a stabbing pain. I’m just glad that I was in my basement and not at a crowded gym because I’m sure the 10-15 seconds that it took me to finally get the thing stopped would have been painfully embarrassing to endure (but fairly comical to witness).
I followed my own advice and took a few days off, became more diligent about my stretching, and slowly eased back into my running. I haven’t had any major problems with the hamstring the rest of the week, but I still pay a lot of attention to it because I know this can be a lingering injury.
This episode led me to the injury topic of the week, the minor sprain or strain. Almost everyone who is training for a long race will sustain some form of minor sprain or strain along the way, so I thought I’d talk a little about how to prevent them, treat them, and ultimately overcome them.
First of all, let me define the topic a little better. A sprain is an injury to a ligament, usually a stretching or partial tearing. These can occur from missteps (off a curb or in a hole), twisting injuries, falls, or other traumatic injuries. The most common sprains encountered in running are ankle sprains. A strain is an injury to a muscle or tendon, most commonly from overload or a sudden contraction against resistance. Strains can occur from trying to run too fast, improper warm-up (especially in cold weather), or decreased flexibility. The most common running-related strains are hamstring strains and gastrocnemius (calf) strains.
Preventing these injuries is the key to not missing any training days. To help avoid sprains, pay attention to your running surface. Try to avoid areas with lots of potholes, tree roots, or areas of uneven ground. Make sure you have good traction on your running shoes and that the soles are not worn. To prevent muscle strains, adequate warm-up and flexibility/stretching are the most crucial factors. Listen to your body – if a muscle doesn’t feel quite right or has excessive tightness, give it extra attention in your warm-up and stretching routine.
The typical treatment for these minor injuries is a short period of rest until the pain has resolved, followed by a gradual return to activity. The RICE protocol can be very useful in treating these mild sprains and strains, and is often enough to overcome them. An over-the-counter anti-inflammatory such as ibuprofen or naproxen can be helpful as well, as long as there are no personal contraindications to their use. For muscle strains, stretching is not only a factor in prevention but also an important adjunct to treatment. An injury that doesn’t respond to these measures after several days may be something more serious and may warrant a visit to your doctor.