Running is a great way to get your body moving and to participate in sports. Many middle and high school athletes join cross country or track teams to build their speed and endurance as part of a team. Unfortunately, these young athletes may experience a running injury due to improper mechanics or training.
"Across the board with running, research has shown up to 80% of runners may experience an injury during their first year of running," says Brian Heiser, PT, DPT, SCS, who is a physical therapist at Children's Health℠ Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine – and also an experienced runner. Understanding the injuries that can commonly affect runners and how to prevent them from occurring can help these athletes reach their full potential.
What are the most common running injuries in young athletes?
With the growing number of young athletes participating in competitive running, there has been an increase in the number of acute and overuse injuries. The most common injuries for runners include:
- Stress fractures (can occur in any bone from the hip to ankle)
- Tendonitis (common in the calf, whether Achilles or peroneal tendonitis)
- Iliotibial (IT) band pain and injuries
- Patellofemoral pain (the front of the knee and around the patella, or kneecap)
- Hamstring strains
- Plantar fasciitis (more common in older runners)
Other common running injuries
A wide variety of injuries can occur in young athletes, especially when they increase their running distance too quickly, lack adequate strength training or run using incorrect form. The most common areas of the body to sustain an injury from running are in the lower extremities, such as the hips, legs, knees, ankles and feet.
Hip running injuries
- Hip flexor strains – stretch or tear in the hip muscle
- Greater trochanteric bursitis – swelling of the joint on the outside of the hip, more common in older runners
Upper leg running injuries
- Hamstring strains – over-stretching of the muscle in the back of the thigh
- Quadricep strains – over-stretching of the muscle in the front of the thigh
- Femoral stress fractures – often occur in the shaft or neck of the femur
Knee running injuries
- Iliotibial Band Syndrome (ITBS) – the most common cause of pain on the outside (lateral) of the knee, caused by repetitive friction of the connective band of tissues extending from the hip to the knee
- Patellofemoral pain syndrome (sometimes called "runner's knee") – pain in the front and center of the knee or around the kneecap
Lower leg running injuries
- Calf strain – pain in the calf muscle due to overuse
- Shin splints – also called medial tibial stress syndrome, caused by stress on the shinbone
- Fibular or tibial stress fracture – fracture in lower leg bones due to overuse
Ankle and foot running injuries
- Anterior ankle impingement – pain at the front of the ankle
- Achilles tendonitis – overuse injury of the Achilles tendon, which connects the calf muscle to the heel
- Peroneal tendonitis – pain that can range from the outside of the foot to the outside of the lower leg
- Ankle sprains – more common in sports that include change in directions
When should I see a doctor for a running injury?
A runner should promptly seek medical attention from an experienced sports medicine team if they experience any of the following:
- Injury that leads to immediate swelling and/or skin discoloration
- Pain that gradually worsens over time
- Pain that moves, such as pain that starts in the knee and then turns into hip pain
- Pain with a history of multiple stress fractures
- Sudden onset of pain accompanied by a pop or other sound
What can you do to prevent running injuries?
There are ways all runners – and young runners in particular – can work to prevent injuries. To help avoid running injuries, athletes should:
- Gradually increase volume of running
- Strength train (incorporate glutes, hamstrings and single-leg exercises)
- Eat a healthy diet
- Listen to their bodies and incorporate rest
- Seek guidance on running form from an expert
"A lot of our young athletes increase their volume way too fast," explains Heiser. "Usually, we like no more than a 10% increase between sessions and also 10% of your running volume and miles over a week of time." For example, if someone is running 10 miles a week, the next week they should run no more than 11 miles. Additionally, an athlete should work to build up speed and pace gradually. "If an athlete increases their pace or distance too fast, that's when injuries occur," says Heiser.
For athletes concentrating on running, a physical therapist or running expert may be able to analyze a runner's gait and form and offer ways to move more efficiently. This can not only help prevent running injuries, but also increase running performance.
Tips for returning to running after injury
When an athlete returns to running after an injury, many of the same rules apply. The runner should use the 10% rule to increase running volume, get adequate nutrition and rest.
"Rest and nutrition are just as important as running," Heiser reminds runners. "If you're not listening to your body – running through pain and not resting or fueling properly – you're going to make injuries worse."
The first pediatric institute of its kind in Texas, the Children's Health Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine aims at reducing the number of children being sidelined from injury. Learn more about our wide range of services available to help athletes stay healthy and improve their game.
If your athlete is interested in maximizing their running potential, contact our sports medicine team at 469-303-3000 to schedule an individualized running assessment.
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