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Running is one of the best fitness activities you can do for your body. It also gives your body a beating unlike any other endurance sport. Most habitual runners have experienced some kind of injury, whether it's a minor muscle strain or chronic knee pain. Mention ]]>Achilles' tendonitis]]> or ]]>plantar fasciitis]]> in a room full of runners, and you're sure to get plenty of knowing looks.

Fortunately, most running injuries are treatable with rest, rehabilitation, and/or careful management. Unfortunately, runners can be a stubborn bunch when it comes to cutting back mileage or—gasp—taking a complete break from running.

Too Much Running

Most running injuries result from running "either too much, too often, or too fast," says Jack Scaff, MD, a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine and director of the Honolulu Marathon Clinic. Beginning runners are especially prone to the injury trap, he adds.

Other running injuries, Dr. Scaff says, are attributable to improper shoes or improper running style. Whatever the cause of your injury, it's important to deal with it and treat it—even if that means cutting back or taking time off from running. Scaff recommends—even if you're injury free—running no more than four days per week, and incorporating biking, swimming, and other cross-training activities into your routine.

Shin Splints

]]>Shin splints]]>—injuries to the sheath that attaches the muscle to the bone at the postero-medial aspect of your lower leg—are especially common in beginning runners. "Their legs aren't used to the pounding," says Richard Cotton, a spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise and an exercise physiologist with First Fitness, Inc. In addition, changing the surface you run on (ie, from indoor surfaces to pavement) and running on a tight circular track can lead to shin splints.

To treat shinsplints, ice the sore area for up to 20 minutes at a time. Either place crushed ice in a towel and place it directly on the injury or use the Styrofoam cup method: fill the cup with water, freeze it, then tear off the cup and rub the ice up and down your shin. If the shin splints persist, "Ease up on your running," Cotton recommends. And don't get back into it too quickly; be patient with your progression to the level of running you hope to attain.

Knee Injuries

In running, these are usually chronic overuse injuries. Most runners experience either lateral pain or patellar pain. Cotton says knee injuries can be caused by improper running form, wearing the wrong shoes, or running too much when your body isn't ready. "When you start running, you gain aerobic endurance in a fairly short time," Cotton says. "Your musculoskeletal system doesn't adapt as quickly." Cotton recommends running less than you think you're able to do as your body adapts. "Strive for consistency in running," he suggests, rather than going all out and injuring yourself.

Hamstring Injuries

Many runners have fairly tight hamstrings, which could mean more susceptibility to pulls and tears. If you experience ]]>hamstring pain]]> , Cotton recommends icing, ultrasound, or gentle stretching to improve the comfort of your run. Then you'll need to strengthen the hamstrings. However, if a muscle is badly pulled, don't do excessive stretching. If the pain continues, take time off from running and consider seeing a physical therapist to help with rehabilitation.

Achilles' Tendinopathy (Tendinitis or Tendinosis)

Microtears of the Achilles' tendon—the tendon that connects the calf muscles to the back of the heel bone—can make for a painful running experience. This can be caused by improper progression (ie, running too much, too soon). It might also be aggravated by worn shoes, Cotton says.

When you have ]]>Achilles' tendinopathy]]>, you can try gentle stretching of the tendon and calf muscles and applying ice to reduce pain. If the pain persists, you should take time to rest. Don't just run through the pain. "You have to do a little dance with your Achilles," Cotton says. "You need to know when it's feeling good and you can run, and you need to pay attention to the pain and know when to back off."

Low Back Pain

Some runners experience tightness and pain in their lower backs. This, like most running injuries, can be caused by the wrong or worn out shoes or incorrect form. Check your gait, Cotton says. You may be spending too much time in the air, which means you come down harder and put added pressure on your lower back. Try strengthening your core muscles (back and abdominal muscles) and stretching your lower back. The cobra stretch is one you may want to try—your hips are on the ground, your arms straight, and your back arched. You can also stretch by drawing your knees to your chest while sitting on the ground.

Got to Be the Shoes

Many running injuries result from wearing the wrong shoes. While lacing up the right pair of sneakers won't turn you into a superstar, it could save you pain and suffering down the road.

The goal is to find a shoe that allows you a neutral foot strike. If you tend to overpronate or oversupinate, you want to find a shoe that helps you back to the neutral position. Go to a store that specializes in running shoes, and "have someone watch you run and look at your old shoes to see where they are worn," Cotton suggests. They should be able to suggest a running shoe that's appropriate for you.

Finally, buy shoes in the evening when your feet are at their biggest. Too-tight shoes are a pain—literally.

Healthy Habits

Running doesn't have to hurt. While it's true that the more you run, the more at risk you are for injury, some runners do manage to avoid getting hobbled by pain.

Develop running habits that keep you injury free.

  • Always begin your run with a warm-up. Start slowly and stay at a slow pace for the first 10 to 15 minutes of your run, Scaff says.
  • Buy the right shoes. Replace them before they get worn out.
  • In the case of small injuries, get in the habit of icing. Cotton says this promotes deep circulation and healing.
  • Don't run every day. Take days off and cross train.
  • Don't try to run too fast. "Base precedes speed," Scaff says. Build your ability to run distances before you try to run those distances fast.
  • Don't run too much before you're ready. Give your body time to get accustomed to running and its demands.
  • Rest. It's okay to take days off, especially if you have an injury. Take a few days off while the injury is minor instead of running through the pain and being sidelined for months down the road.