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Spring Running Training
Don't Let Early Season Zeal Work You Over

By Art Carey - State College, PA Centre Daily Times

At Bryn Mawr Running Co., spring is always the busiest time of the year.

Bob Schwelm, owner of the running-gear store, knows how the equation works: the more customers in March, the more injuries in April and May.

This spring, Schwelm and other informed observers expect to see a bumper crop of overuse ailments as mobs of weekend warriors and recreational athletes hit the jogging trails, the bike paths, the tennis courts, and the softball diamonds.

"You could call this story 'Adaptation,'" says Havertown orthopedic surgeon Nick DiNubile. "Can the body adapt quickly enough to what people will be throwing at it in a very short period of time? ... Many people have been sedentary all winter. Probably a majority have not been working out and taking preventive measures. Now, suddenly, they want to change, they want to shift their bodies into high gear."

So many are about to learn a hard lesson: The body has limits and does not react kindly to sudden change. Go out and run 10 miles after a four-month layoff, and you'll be hurting the next day. Rapid change in any aspect of the exercise trinity -- intensity, frequency, duration -- almost ensures injury.

"The amazing thing about the body is that it does adapt and it does get stronger," says DiNubile, "but if you ramp up too quickly, your body breaks down before it has the chance."

Some folks are more prone to breaking down than others.

"All of us bring weak links to the game," he says.

Age, obviously, is a factor. So are genes, old injuries, improper rehab, inadequate conditioning.

Then there's what DiNubile calls "the weak link in the executive suite." In other words, some people are "really stupid, with all the body awareness of a stegosaurus (which was so dim it is believed to have needed a separate brain to operate its tail).

Running the risk

Schwelm sees three types of customers come spring:

The fair-weather runners. They hibernate over the winter. Once the vernal equinox arrives, they bound outdoors, eager to resume where they left off. Typically, they knock themselves out of commission by breaking the cardinal commandment of fitness: Thou shalt not do too much, too soon.

The hothouse runners. Good boys and girls, they kept running through the arctic siege, but on a treadmill. Now, they're trying to log the same mileage outside, except they've forgotten that running outdoors is much tougher, what with the unforgiving surfaces, uneven terrain, uphills and downhills, and wind resistance.

The rookie runners. They're stoked and eager to test themselves. They have no idea how to train or what their bodies can handle. Their enthusiasm is about to collide with the reality of repetitive stress.

The body was designed to be used, not overused. Among walkers, hikers, joggers and runners, overuse typically presents itself as one of the Big Three: plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendinitis and shin splints.

Plantar fasciitis, or heel spur, is inflammation of the band of connective tissue that runs along the bottom of the foot. It hurts like the dickens; the first step in the morning can feel like stepping on a hot spike.

Achilles tendinitis is inflammation of the Achilles' tendon. Like PF, it is usually caused because the legs are tight. The leg is a chain of muscles, tendons and ligaments that runs from the toes to the hips. If that chain becomes too taut, sooner or later injury will occur at the weakest link -- the plantar fascia, the Achilles' tendon, the calf muscle, or hamstring.

Shin splints (tibial stress syndrome) is inflammation of the shin bone. The usual suspects: muscle constantly pulling on the bone (often because of faulty foot architecture and lousy leg alignment), and/or too much shock, or at least more shock than the bone can absorb. The result: hairline fractures.

Baby steps

So much for the bad news. The good news: It doesn't have to be. The wisdom of the ancients still holds: moderation in all things. Beyond that, heed this sensible advice: Listen to your body.

"If something doesn't feel right, it probably isn't," says Huntingdon Valley podiatrist Ira Meyers, who won the Philly Marathon in 1986. "If you haven't done anything in a while, it's normal to wake up and feel stiff. Stiffness is not a bad thing, but swelling is a warning sign you shouldn't ignore. Never run with a swollen Achilles tendon. Never run on a swollen knee."

What should you do? Rest, ice, compression and elevation.

Adds DiNubile: "What I tell my sedentary patients or those coming back from an injury is: Make sure you feel good not only the night after exercise but also the next day. Sometimes, the red light doesn't come on right away. Sometimes, the message that you've gone over the limit is delayed."

Savvy doctors know that exercise is medicine, and subject to the same dose/response principle. The right dose can be a cure; too much can be poison.

So start slow. "In the beginning, you probably shouldn't run any faster than you can walk," says Joan Osborne of Fast Tracks, a women's running club. "Intensity is not the issue; duration is more important."

DiNubile goes further. "Don't run to get in shape," he declares. "Get in shape to run."

"If you're overweight or deconditioned, running is a pretty heavy-duty activity that subjects the joints and cardiovascular system to a lot of stress," he says.

His recommendation: Try to get in shape "before you run by losing weight and building strength and a cardiovascular base through low-impact training (cycling, rowing, exercising on an elliptical trainer).

When you're ready to run, begin by walking a mile briskly, DiNubile suggests. How does your body feel that night? The day after? Then gradually incorporate some running. Walk a third, jog a third, walk a third.

He advocates the 10 Percent Rule: Don't ramp up more than 10 percent per week.

The go-slow approach applies to more advanced runners, too.

"Elite runners hire coaches not so much to motivate them to run faster, but to put a chain around them and slow them down," Schwelm says. "Running is the one sport where if you go hard every day you're going to get hurt."

His advice: Run hard twice a week. The other days are for recovery.

Rest is just as important as exertion. Exercise is physical stress that literally rips up your body, causing untold microtears in your muscle and connective tissue. Without adequate rest, healing won't happen. Body parts wear out, become injured and inflamed.

And let's not forget about stretching. When it comes to locomotion, walking, hiking or running, it boils down to your "prime movers" -- the calves, the quads and the glutes.

The key to injury prevention is bringing the body back into balance. How? By working the muscles opposite the prime movers. To stretch the calves, you work the shin muscles; to stretch the quads, you work the hamstrings; to stretch the glutes, you work the hip flexors.

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