Is Running Bad For You? Avoid Injury : Know Your Limits

At any time of the day you can find runners putting in mileage to reach their fitness goals.  Some are running 2-4 miles and others are going 8-12 miles. While these runners appear to be healthy and highly functional, you have probably heard people at the gym mention that running is bad for you.  Are they right? If running is actually bad for you, then how can runners appear to be so healthy?

Who’s Right?
The short answer is no, running is not bad for you.  However, just like all forms of exercise, maintaining good technique and knowing your limits are vital to avoiding injury while achieving your fitness goals. Running is a very effective form of cardio that can be done almost anywhere and at anytime. Since running is involved in all sports, it is very common for athletes to incorporate running into their exercise routine.


Proper Technique
Let’s start with some fundamental aspects of running that need to be applied in order to fully enjoy the benefits of running without hurting yourself. One of the biggest reasons running gets a bad reputation is because many people are jogging instead of running.

What’s the difference? Most of it boils down to forward-momentum (running) versus vertical momentum (jogging). The constant up and down motion of jogging increases the amount of shock that the joints throughout the body need to absorb.  This can result in foot, ankle, knee, hip, or spinal pain. The forward-momentum of running is most noticeable when watching professional races. You will notice that instead of their feet stomping on the ground with more of a bouncing motion, they smoothly move across the ground.  You should see or feel your legs cycling through the motion like Sonic the Hedgehog.

Have you heard people say “running is bad for your back”?  That is not completely accurate. Running with bad posture is bad for your back.  The natural curve of the spine serves as a spring to help absorb shock. However, if you increase the bend in your spine with bad posture it will result in pain and increase the possibility of injuring your back.  Think of your spine like a stick that is being bent. Eventually, there is a breaking point for that stick. If you have your shoulders rolled forward and your upper back is hunched you will end up with pain between your shoulder blades and likely notice some difficulty breathing.  The same concept applies to your low back and neck. This can eventually lead to degenerative or arthritic conditions. Keep your shoulders back and your back straight while looking ahead towards the finish line.

Benfits of Running
As you run consistently you will begin to notice many great benefits, which I will list a few here. One of the main motivating factors of exercising is looking better.  On the outside, you should notice a decrease in unwanted body fat. People usually do not object to having a leaner, more toned appearance.  This may seem like simply a vain reason to run. However, after having studied the body extensively, I have concluded that the body’s appearance on the outside is usually mirrored on the inside.

On the inside, the biggest improvements affect the lungs and heart/vascular system.  I am pretty sure that without oxygen you will die and sometimes when you are running you may feel like you are dying.  The high amounts of oxygen required when running places a healthy amount of stress on your lungs forcing them to adapt.  As you continue to run you will notice your lungs getting stronger and more efficient. Since all activities require oxygen, this benefit will translate to all aspects of your life, improving stamina and endurance.

The heart is the other beneficiary of running.  The heart helps pump nutrients and oxygen to the entire body.  Running helps to improve the efficiency of the heart. It is very common for runners to have an incredibly low resting heart rate.  Sometimes it is half the rate of the average person. This means that a runner’s heart can work half as hard to get the same job done.  Could you imagine working half the time and making the same amount of money? This is what happens in the body. Running consistently will also result in a decreased risk of sclerotic plaque building up inside your blood vessels.

Choose the Right Shoe
The nice thing about running is that the only equipment you need is a good pair of shoes.  The right shoes that have not been completely worn out can do a lot to transform your running experience.  As shoes get more worn, they lose their ability to absorb shock and provide support to your foot and ankle.  This is when injury commonly occurs or you notice that your typical run was harder on you than it usually is.

Think of your running shoes like changing the oil in your car.  Mileage and timing help you know when it is time for an oil change.  When running, the two variables you need to track are the mileage and age of your shoes.  Shoes should be replaced every 300-500 miles or within 6 months of purchasing them. It’s easy to lose track of these variables, so set a reminder on your calendar or record your runs.  There are many runners that will write the date on their shoes to help them remember when it is time to get new ones. If you also use your running shoes for everyday use (errands, work, etc.), then replace the shoes sooner rather than later.

Buying the right shoe for your foot is difficult and varies from person to person.  Try on all the brands that are available to compare toe box width, weight, cushion, and support.  When trying on the shoes, be aware of any pressure points you notice on your foot from the shoe and if you there are any uncomfortable wear points.  If it is the right shoe, you will forget you have it on instead of having constant reminders. Do not rely too much on “breaking it in” to make it more comfortable.

The Differences in Running Surfaces
Different surfaces will affect the body if different ways.  Soft surfaces like a track or grass are easier on the muscles, joints, and bones.  Try one of these surfaces if you are recovering from an injury, if running leads to an increase in pain, or if you are trying to lose weight and do not want the extra wear and tear.

Treadmills are also a soft and forgiving option that will be easier on your body.  Another good thing about a treadmill is that they give you an indoor running option on those days that are just too wet, cold, or hot.  One thing to be aware of with treadmills is that they do not work the back side of your legs (glutes and hamstrings) as much as the other running options.  Since the ground is moving beneath you, you do not have to pull through with your legs to propel yourself. As long as your quads can lift your knees fast enough, you will be cruising on the treadmill.  This is part of the reason you will occasionally see someone walking backwards on the treadmill. This helps to engage the posterior chain a little bit more. If you are a treadmill runner, be sure to find an additional exercise to target your glutes and hamstrings as well.

Trail running is gradually increasing in popularity.  It is usually more scenic and intriguing for the runner.  The uneven ground also makes for a more intense workout (especially if there are hills involved).  However, the uneven ground can serve as a pro and a con. It forces your muscles to adapt to the ever-changing surfaces which improves the stability and proprioception of your joints.  On the flip side, the uneven ground can increase your risk for injury and make some muscles work harder than they are ready for at an early point in your training. Be sure to listen to your body and the warnings that it gives you.

Incorporating Running into Your Workout
When adding running to your workout, keep in mind that you need to approach it as more of a marathon than a sprint.  Ease yourself into it by gradually increasing your mileage. If you are a beginner, you may find that alternating running and walking a block or lap is a good starting point.  As you improve, you can increase your running time and decrease your walking time.

You also need to be consistent.  Running will not be very beneficial if you only do it a few times a month.  A healthy routine is 3-5 days of running per week. This allows enough time for recovery between runs.  Try to make one of your runs longer than the others each week. For example, a few 2-3 mile runs with one 5 mile run is a good approach.

The key to good cardio is doing an activity that elevates your heart rate for an extended period of time.  One way to estimate your target heart rate begins with knowing your maximum heart rate. This is done by subtracting your age from 220.  From there, your aerobic exercise should be for over 20 minutes at about 60-80% of your maximum heart rate. For example, if you are 30 years old your max heart rate is 190 beats per minute (220 minus 30).  Therefore, your target heart rate should be 114-152 beats per minute while running.

In the end, finding a good running coach is the best way to ensure that you are running properly.  They can also help you create a running program that is best for your body type. Take advantage of this option to meet your goals while avoiding injury.

Alternatives for Running
For some people, running simply does not do it for them physically or mentally.  Sometimes a past injury or a larger body type requires a lower impact fitness routine that does not include running.  Do not let that keep you from incorporating cardio into your workout. If running simply does not hold your interest, most sports can help you fill that aerobic void while being highly entertaining and engaging.  Playing basketball is a good option since you can usually find a city league or pickup game. You could also try ultimate frisbee, soccer, or hiking.  If you need lower impact exercises, good outdoor options include biking, rollerblading/skating, and swimming. If you are at the gym, try the elliptical, stair stepper, or stationary bike.


To Sum It All Up
Running is not bad for you, but sloppy running is. Do not forget that consistency and variety are the keys to any successful exercise program. That might mean incorporating some other aerobic options or simply changing your running route and adding speed work on a regular basis. Just remember: Get your heart rate up, keep it up, and switch it up to keep running interesting and challenging.


About the author
Dr. Stephen Workman is a chiropractic physician practicing in Cedar City, Utah.  Dr. Workman specializes in sport injuries and performance. He has treated many professional athletes, dancers, and musicians over the years. In addition to his Doctorate in Chiropractic, he has a Master’s degree in Sports Medicine and two Bachelor’s degrees in Human Biology and Exercise Science.  Dr. Workman enjoys all forms of exercise, sports, and outdoor activities. He is also a drummer and an avid foodie. Dr. Workman can be reached at DocSWorkman@gmail.com.

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