Many runners are now training for their upcoming goal races. With that comes weekly workouts, long runs and higher mileage. It is also the time of year that new and unusual aches and pains begin to set in and often make us wonder whether we’re facing an impending injury and may need to back off.
While aches, stiffness and fatigue are an entirely normal part of routine training, unusual pain and discomfort could be the first sign of a larger issue that needs to be addressed.
In all cases, it is better to take a few days off running to rest and recover than it is to run and risk more serious and long-term setbacks. One of the most difficult lessons a runner must learn is knowing the difference between routine tiredness, soreness and aches, from more serious fatigue, pain and possible injuries. It is important to be proactive: ice sore muscles, incorporate strength and stretching routines to help build an injury-proof body and see a specialist for treatment if the problem gets more severe.
Here we break down the most common runner complaints and offer some insight:
Tiredness and fatigue
Common causes of fatigue:
- Routine training, especially after a hard workout, consecutive days of training or an increase in mileage
- Inadequate amount or poor quality of sleep
- Poor diet and nutrition such as low iron
- Changing seasons and daylight hours
Whether you did a long run the day before or are coming off a few straight days of running, many runners begin to feel more tired than usual when taking their training to the next level. Feeling fatigued and struggling through any individual run shouldn’t be an immediate cause concern, however a string of bad runs, failed workouts or feeling exhausted for a week or more could suggest you are chronically fatigued, under-rested or potentially over-training. In this case, a few days off might help you bounce back.
One hint of chronic fatigue is an elevated heart rate. This could be a resting heart rate that is higher than normal or an increased heart rate during a regular run. Getting adequate sleep is essential and in some cases, may be more important than logging a few extra miles. Being properly fueled and hydrated before and after your run is also of utmost importance to keep excess fatigue at bay.
Stiffness and soreness
Common causes of stiffness and soreness:
- Hard efforts and workouts, especially speedwork
- Running on uneven surfaces such as trails, on ice or snow
- A long run or several consecutive days of running
- Running downhill
Soreness is most likely to occur after a hard effort or long run and often presents itself in larger muscle groups—quads, calves or hamstrings—one or two days after a run. Caused by damage to muscle fibres and part of natural training adaptations, it is rarely something to worry about. Normally, soreness gradually decreases with time and should go away after a full day or two. Be proactive and do some light stretching, foam rolling and strength exercises to help alleviate the soreness.
In the case of soreness that persists longer than expected, plan to rest, ice, compress and elevate (RICE) tight or sore muscles. If the soreness increases with activity, such as during a run, it may be wise to take the day off and if possible, engage in a cross training activity such as cycling or swimming that does not aggravate the sore muscles. Getting blood flow to damaged muscles is a great way to speed up recovery.
Take note that if the discomfort is asymmetrical, meaning on one side and not the other, this may be an indication of something more serious. Consider extra time off until the soreness subsides.
Aches and pains
Common causes of aches and pains:
- Overuse injuries resulting from a sudden increase in mileage or intensity
- Running on hard or uneven surfaces
- Running in overused footwear or changing to a new type of footwear
- A muscle strain or partial tear caused by a hard effort or workout
Occasionally, a prolonged period of muscle soreness may begin to localize and intensify in one or more very specific areas. In other cases, an ache or pain may come on suddenly during or immediately following a run. Pain may be dull and achy or it may be sharp and intense. If it’s the latter, it’s time to take it seriously and get it checked out. A tear or strain to a muscle, tendon or ligament, even if small or partial, could become a serious setback. Any pain that alters how you run or causes a change in form is more likely to cause additional and further problems in the near future. Continuing to run through pain caused by an injury also means that other muscles will overcompensate for the injured muscle and this leads to further complications and imbalances. We suggest seeing a specialist—a sports doctor, physiotherapist or chiropractor—to get a professional opinion and start initial treatment.