As amazing as the human body is, it is still prone to injury. Taking part in any physical activity is obviously good for us; it builds strength and flexibility, and the stronger and more flexible we are the less likely we are to get injured. Our reactions are faster and we have better balance and coordination.
That said, because muscles, tendons and ligaments are repeatedly and rapidly flexed and contracted during exercise it is important that we are aware of how to care for them in order to avoid unnecessary injuries. Especially as the desire to improve performance – to be faster, stronger or more flexible – can lead to the body being stretched beyond its natural limits which can lead to strains and sprains.
So let’s look at how we can maintain healthy feet and knees while running by looking at sprains and strains – how to recognise them and what to do about them so that you can spend more time enjoying what you love, and less time recuperating. Sprains are injuries to ligaments, the tough bands connecting bones in a joint. Strains are injuries to muscle fibres or tendons, which anchor muscles to bones.
Below is a list of the type of injuries that involve the feet and knees and how to recognise and treat them. As with all things, knowledge is power, so the more you know about how to recognise and treat injuries that can sometimes occur, the faster you will be able to recover from them and get back to your training.
- Ankle sprain
Cause: One or more ligaments in the ankle joint has been stretched, twisted or torn. Typically the result of the ankle turning inwards, missing your step, or landing on an even surface.
Symptoms: Pain in the ankle joint, unable to weight bear, motion restricted by pain, swelling, bruising, tenderness.
Treatment: PRICE (Protection, Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) principle, over-the-counter pain relief. Full use is often regained in 6 to 8 weeks, but can be far less for minor sprains.
- Heel pain (plantar fasciitis)
Cause: A sudden and significant increase in the amount of running you do, excessive up hill running, worn shoes or those that don’t offer sufficient support.
Symptoms: Sharp stabbing pain when you put weight on the heel.
Treatment: Apply ice by wrapping a small bottle of frozen water in a cloth, placing it on the floor and rolling it back and forth under your foot for about 20 minutes. Never place ice directly on your skin as it can cause ice burns. With early intervention, heel pain will normally abate in two to three weeks.
- Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) tear
Cause: The ACL joins the thigh bone to the shin bone at the knee and gives the knee joint its stability. A rare injury, runners typically tear their ACL by over extending their lower leg, landing incorrectly on steep declines, stopping or changing direction suddenly, or an accumulation of smaller injuries over time that aren’t treated correctly.
Symptoms: Acute – feeling or hearing a "pop" in the knee, sudden instability, pain, swelling. Chronic – unstable knee joint that buckles or gives out frequently, pain, swelling.
Treatment: Depending on the extent of the damage, range of movement available and impact on your lifestyle, surgery may be required. Outside of surgery a physiotherapist can advise on suitable exercises to help strengthen the muscle around your knee joint.
- Runner’s Knee – Patellofemoral syndrome
Cause: Overuse – repeated movement of your kneecap against your thigh bone, trauma, i.e. a fall or blow, weak thigh muscles or muscle imbalance, fallen arches.
Symptoms: Pain when you bend the knee whilst bearing your weight (e.g., running, getting up from sitting, squatting), pain behind/around the kneecap, swelling, popping or grinding sensation in the knee.
Treatment: PRICE, specific stretching and strengthening exercises (seek advice from a physiotherapist), and anti-inflammatory medications can help with pain and swelling. It should be noted that these drugs can have side effects so should be used only occasionally, unless otherwise advised by your doctor. It can take up to six weeks for a runner’s knee pain to clear up. Don’t return to your previous level of activity until you are pain free or you could cause permanent damage.
- Iliotibial band syndrome (ITBS)
Cause: The Iliotibial band is a thick tendon that stretches from the pelvic bone all the way down your thigh. Pain is caused when this becomes inflamed as a result of increased mileage, downhill running, or weak hips.
Symptoms: Pain on the outside of the knee or hip.
Treatment: Rest, and specific stretches to increase flexibility. Using a roll of foam to massage the area by rolling it from your hip to your knee can also help alleviate pain.
Fortunately, most sprains and strains are mild or moderate and can be treated at home with the PRICE principle. You should always seek medical advice from your doctor or a physiotherapist if you are in severe pain or have any concerns about the seriousness of your injury.