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Health Hotline: The benefits of running safely

By Jessica Woodward, M.D.

As spring descends on the Northland, many of us are anxious to get out and get moving. Exercise and overall fitness are important components to overall health. And, while there are numerous ways to work out, one popular and growing trend is running.

According to Running USA, nearly 14 million Americans participated in road races in 2011. That number doesn’t include runners who practice the sport without participating in organized races. Whether your goal is to run marathons, or a few kilometers, running can have significant benefits to your health.

Running provides a great aerobic workout, which burns calories and strengthens your heart, muscles and bones. In addition, it can relieve stress and boost your confidence.

But, running can put you at risk for injury. About seven out of 10 runners have some type of injury each year. Running injuries usually happen when you push yourself too hard, disregard the weather conditions or if you are moving in a way that causes extra stress on a specific part of your body.

Common injuries include stress fractures, tendinitis, pulled muscles, knee injuries, ankle injuries, plantar fasciitis, blisters, sunburn, heat exhaustion, frostbite and hypothermia.

Treatment for running injuries begins with rest. As hard as it may be to take a break from running, running through the pain may only make your injury worse. Choose alternate ways to exercise while your injury heals. Ice and cold packs can help reduce pain, inflammation and swelling. Use over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen and anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen and naproxen as recommended by your healthcare provider. Wrapping the affected area can provide stabilization during the healing process. If you have a sprain or strain, elevating your ankle or foot can help reduce swelling. In addition, gently stretch and massage the affected area. Do not stretch to the point of pain. If your pain persists despite resting and other at-home treatments, see your healthcare provider.

The best way to deal with injuries is to avoid them in the first place. There are specific things you can do to prevent running injuries. First and foremost, listen to your body. A little soreness is OK, but don’t ignore pain. If running causes pain, stop and take a break.

Always warm-up and stretch before and after your run. Complete a five-minute warm-up by walking, for example, before stretching. Stretching cold muscles can cause injuries. Concentrate on stretching the muscles in your calf, hamstrings, groin and quadriceps.

Stay hydrated. You’ll need an extra 12 to 20 ounces of water on days you run.

Consider the weather and dress appropriately so you don’t get overheated or too cold. Dress in layers you can easily remove as your body heats up during your run. Choose proper fitting shoes with good support. Wear sunscreen.

Choose a running surface that is flat and preferably soft. Avoid slanted, uneven pathways.

Consider combining running with strength training to build muscle, bone density and protect against injury.

Although exercise is safe for most people, health experts suggest that you check with your physician before diving into any new fitness program if you are pregnant or have existing health concerns such as heart disease, asthma, lung disease, diabetes, kidney disease, arthritis or any other medical condition that may limit your physical abilities. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that you see your doctor before engaging in vigorous exercise if two or more of the following apply:

  •  You’re a man over the age of 45 or a woman over the age of 55.
  •  You have a family history of heart disease before age 55 in men and 65 in women.
  •  You smoke or you quit smoking in the past six months.
  •  You haven’t exercised for at least 30 minutes, three days a week for three months or more.
  •  You’re overweight or obese.
  •  You have high blood pressure or high cholesterol.
  •  You have pre-diabetes.

More people are taking to the streets — in their running shoes. The sport is growing. In 1976, there were 25,000 marathon finishers in the U.S. Compare that to over 500,000 in 2011. You don’t have to run marathons to get the benefits from running. It can raise your good cholesterol, increase lung function, boost your immune system, lower your risk for breast cancer, decrease your risk for stroke and heart attack. Running relieves stress and burns calories, which aids in weight loss. In short, there are a lot of good reasons to get out there and join the race — or at least just run for the fun of it.

Dr. Woodward is a board certified family practice physician at Raiter Clinic in Cloquet.