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Running Injury or Muscle Soreness? How To Tell, What To Do

A sporty man running up steps in an urban setting

Running is one of the most beneficial ways to exercise. Running burns calories and improves cardiovascular health, and consistent running can lead to a healthier and longer life.

But like all forms of exercise, running can lead to injuries if your body is not prepared for the demands applied to it and with training errors. If you’re feeling discomfort after training, it’s important to differentiate between the pain caused by injury and the achy, stiff or tight sensation of muscle soreness.

Listen to your body’s cues. While muscle soreness is a healthy and expected result of exercise, pain can indicate an injury that needs medical attention.

Pain is usually an ache or sharp sensation that felt at rest when exercising. It begins during exercise within 24 hours of activity and may linger if not addressed. Pain will improve with ice, rest, movement and a gradual return to activity, unless the injury is severe. Indicators of pain from injury are symptoms that develop or intensify with running, pain that does not decrease with rest and recovery, painful or swollen joints, and pain that disrupts sleep.

Muscle soreness is characterized by a tired or tight feeling while exercising, a dull and achy feeling while at rest, or tenderness when touching the muscles. It occurs during exercise and up to 72 hours after activity, and typically lasts two to three days. Muscle soreness improves with stretching, more movement or activity and with appropriate rest and recovery from exercise, and worsens with sitting still.

What to Do About Running Injuries

Think over your training regimen or consult your running journal. One of the most common causes for running injuries is training errors, which can include:

  • High mileage or fast progression in a short period of time
  • Running too frequently or too intensely with inadequate rest
  • Rapid changes or transitions in your regimen
  • Incorrect running form and technique
  • Shoe wear
  • Poor running surfaces or difficult terrain
  • Type of training

Beyond training errors, other factors for running injuries also can include age, gender, experience, structural abnormalities or body build, and previous injuries.

Painful activities should be avoided or modified to reduce your chances of injury.

Most training errors can be prevented with the correct training program, getting the proper treatment, wearing the correct shoe type, and having the right knowledge regarding running and overuse injuries.

How To Lessen Muscle Soreness

During the few days that you experience muscle soreness, you might consider performing alternate exercise activities as cross training to give your muscles a chance to recover while maintaining fitness and strength with active recovery. These guidelines can help you to determine exercise progression:

  • If no soreness is present from previous day’s exercises, progress exercise by modifying only ONE variable.
  • If soreness is present from previous day’s exercises, but recedes with warm-up, stay at the same level.
  • If soreness is present from the previous day’s exercise, but does not recede with warm-up, decrease exercise to the level prior to progression. Consider taking the day off if soreness is still present with reduced level of exercises. When exercise is resumed, it should be at the reduced level.

The Role of Physical Therapy in Treating Injuries

Physical therapy can assess injuries and treat musculoskeletal impairments that put the body at risk for injury with running. It can be a valuable tool for any runner suffering from an injury who wants to return to running.

By performing running gait assessments and musculoskeletal screenings, the physical therapist (PT) evaluates for impairments that may be contributing to a runner’s injury and identifies ways to address the source and prevent future injuries.

The evaluation does not just focus on the area of injury, but evaluates the entire lower extremity in addition to gait and running assessments to identify any deviations or compensations. Often, if a deviation or impairment is found in one’s gait, it is amplified during running and high-volume training.

Common running injuries include:

Related Links

At the Center for Rehabilitation Services at University Hospitals, our team of specially trained clinical sports medicine rehabilitation specialists take a comprehensive approach to athletic rehabilitation. Learn more about Sports Rehabilitation Services for athletes at University Hospitals.