Muscle soreness or injury? Runners need to know the difference to stay healthy
Now that summer has begun, many of us are starting to get into the longer miles of our marathon or half-marathon training programs. During this time, long runs are getting longer and our bodies are adapting to the stresses of running farther than we're used to.
These miles can bring on many different aches and pains, and it is sometimes difficult to tell whether you're just feeling achy or if you have the beginnings of an injury. Being able to tell the difference can help you stay healthy through your training program.
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Muscle soreness post-workout After a longer run or hard workout, most of us get some sort of muscle soreness. This post-workout soreness is called delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). This is a normal response to muscle exertion and often occurs after working out longer or more intensely than our bodies are used to. Muscle soreness is a more generalized pain that is felt in areas of your body. Muscles will sometimes feel tender to the touch, and the soreness will be in a wide span of area, such as the front of the legs, not in a specific, centralized location. If you have DOMS for a few days after a tough workout, this is very normal. But it does mean you should take one or two easy days to help your muscles rebuild and recover from the hard workout. Injuries If you feel a sharp pain in a specific, centralized location, you may be feeling the beginnings of an injury. The pain may happen during the workout, a few hours after a workout, or the next morning. Often swelling may occur in the area as well. If this happens, the best thing to do is to rest, even if you feel like you can run through the pain (this usually makes it worse). RICE the area (rest, ice, compress, elevate) and take one or two days off or cross train for a few days, as long as it does not irritate the area. If your pain goes away in a few days, congratulate yourself and start back into your training, but at about half of your previous miles. This will help you ease back into training and reduce the risk of more injuries. Often, runners will jump back into training and the next run will be their longest run yet. Save that one for next week. It doesn't hurt to take a few days off and reduce mileage - you will bounce back stronger. Muscle cramps Muscle pain during exercise can be muscle cramping, which is a painful contracting of the muscle during exercise. Muscle cramping for runners is often in the legs or abdomen, and results from fatigue or electrolyte imbalance. Cramping that is caused by muscle fatigue can be prevented by slowing down or shortening the distance and making sure you do a long, slow warm-up. Electrolyte imbalances can be prevented by making sure you have adequate fuel during your run. Bringing water or a sports drink on your runs will help keep you hydrated, and gels like Gu will give you quick energy and help keep you running strong. If you do get muscle cramps during exercise, slowing down for a bit sometimes helps reduce the pain. You can also stop running and stretch or massage the area to help the muscle loosen up. Pain is not a fun part of any sport, but all of us will feel one or more of these types of pain in our experience running. Knowing what the pain in your body is saying can help you reduce injuries and enjoy running longer.
Chelsea Earls is a RRCA running coach and personal trainer who works at Running Fit in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at email@example.com