How Physical Therapy Can Help Common Running Injuries

Every runner can expect to experience an injury at some point in his or her running career. In fact, it’s conceivable that no human walks the earth who hasn’t experienced a side pang, a sore muscle, or an achy joint following a run.

Whether or not that injury requires intervention in the form of physical therapy (PT) can depend on how prepared your body is for your run (running form)—or it may have occurred thanks to over-training. Both causes are quite common.

Do I really need to stop running?

One of the hardest things to hear as a runner is that you need to stop running. After all, according to the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, 80 percent of running injuries are caused by too much of an increase in mileage—which means the injured party was likely attempting to get more into running at the time of injury. One runner laments, “I didn’t so much injure myself as fail to train my body to exercise at all. When I started exercising regularly, my workouts were followed by a day or so of debilitating knee pain, especially when going up or down stairs.”

However, a break from running is often the first thing prescribed by a physical therapist treating running injuries. After all, muscles and joints are slower to adjust to stress than the cardiovascular system—meaning it’s easy for runners to wear out their legs, back, or neck before wearing out their lungs.

At the first sign of pain, it is advisable to back off, slow to a walk, and focus on stretching or cross training to strengthen the muscles surrounding the sore spot. Indeed, many common running injuries are attributable to weak muscles around a target area. The runner suffering knee trouble found this to be the case: “My PT determined that there was insufficient strength in certain muscles in my upper legs, as well as tightness in my lower legs, which was causing my kneecaps to pull to one side when they bent.” The solution? Stretching and strength training targeting the affected area. “She had me do stretches, strengthening exercises (deadlifts and butterflies), and balance exercises,” the runner said.

Of course, PT is a lot like homework—it can often be an annoying and long-term commitment, and it can take an inordinate amount of time, patience, and persistence. Progress is often slow, and sometimes the pain gets worse before it gets better. Still, something is better than nothing; said the runner with the knee injury, “I’ve continued to do the exercises with greater and lesser fidelity for the last year or so. I can now jog and climb stairs and generally go about life with much more minimal and rare knee pain.”

So what kinds of injuries are okay?

In general, muscle soreness is to be expected with most forms of physical activity. In addition, many people experience stiffness at the beginning of a workout or joint discomfort for a day after the workout. As long as all such pain dissipates after a short while, no additional action is needed.

When should I call in the physical therapist?

Any pain that lingers or keeps you up at night should be carefully monitored and possibly treated. Furthermore, if you get a few minutes into your run and the pain gets worse, stop and walk and seek medical advice. Many runners report on how they changed their stride to compensate for a sore spot—but compensating doesn’t fix the problem, and it may in fact cause other injuries.

What can PT do?

PTAs demonstrated in the runner with knee pain, physical therapy for running injuries often focuses on building up the muscles around the injured area, particularly in the legs, as well as massaging and stretching the injured area. For extreme injuries, PT can offer a way to exhaust all options before surgery—an unenviable prospect that essentially guarantees a long and harrowing recovery period.

Physical therapy for running injuries typically consists of stretching and strengthening exercises using stability balls, resistance bands, and body weight exercises, as well as foam rollers for massaging the muscles. Each runner—and injury—is different, which is why every individual should seek the professional advice of a physical therapist for how to treat their individual injury.

One runner and former gymnast found that PT helped restore her range of motion. After suffering torn ligaments and tendons in her ankle, the runner went through PT that consisted of several stretching and strength training exercises, including a simple but effective exercise where she sat on the ground with her legs straight out, alternating between flexing and pointing her toe while using a resistance band. Another exercise focused on balance had her stand on the injured leg before graduating to standing on a couch cushion or other soft surface, then standing on the soft surface while playing catch with the physical therapist. Just as important as restoring her range of motion, the PT helped her learn how to rely on the injured ankle again instead of favoring it and causing her to run “funny” and injure something else.

Runners that have suffered injuries and been through PT are, unsurprisingly, advised to continue their exercises. The runner with the torn ligaments admits she tends to do her exercises only when her ankle starts to get sore or when her opposite hip begins to hurt because she’s “running funny” to favor the affected ankle.

What can I do to avoid injury?

First and foremost, avoid the number one pitfall—increasing mileage too quickly—by following a run program with built-in gradual increases in mileage. A sensible schedule, proper nutrition and rest, and regular strength training are also advisable. Avoiding runs that consist of hard surfaces and downhill running can also help avoid injury.

Guide to Physical Therapy Assisting Programs

Purdue University – Purdue University is one of the nation’s largest providers of online education. The school has a bachelor program for Health and Wellness as well as Health Science. While these programs will help students in learning many of the credentials needed for physical therapy assisting, on the job training and further education may be required.
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South University – South University offers an AS degree in Physical Therapy Assisting that is designed to be completed in about two years. This program teaches students skills needed to be successful including patient interaction, preparing patients as well as equipment for testing or exams, verifying insurance coverage, filing reports, and ordering supplies. South also offers an AS in Occupational Therapy Assisting and a Doctor of Occupational Therapy
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AT Still University – For students who wish to obtain their education while holding part- or full-time jobs, AT Still University makes that possible by offering an online program for their MS in Physician Assistant Studies. This program is designed for students seeking a career in healthcare and helps prepare them for various positions like Physical Therapy Aide.
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