Running injuries: Stop googling your symptoms and focus on recovery

, Thursday, 11 February 2021

Most runners will encounter an injury at least once in their career. There are many of us that wish we had only encountered just the one! While the internet brings us a plethora of information about our beloved sport, it also can be a barrier to our recovery from running injuries when used improperly. It is important to remember that every runner is different, and every running injuries is different.

While many websites contain great information to help different runners understand the aches and pains they are experiencing, there are also many message boards or forums out there that offer non-professional and anecdotal opinions. If you google hard enough, you’ll surely find something that tells you what you want to hear, or worse, you’ll look hard to find that worse case scenario that you’re worried about. Runners need to be able to see the line between useful information and mere conjecture when trying to learn about their running injuries and the treatment options that are available.

Listen to your body and prevent yourself from the most common running injuires

Running injuries: Listen to your body – Know your limits

Tight hamstring tendons that tend to start aching after mile five, that left ankle that always gets a little angry on a long run, or even that sore neck you feel after a heavy week of training. All of these are chronic injuries, that have built up over a long time. The repetitive stress of running takes its toll on every runner’s body, and these types of injuries are often inevitable.

It is important to listen to your body and decide when to “run through” the pain, versus taking time to rest and recover. Whatever the solution is, googling the symptoms should not be the only step in the plan for remediation. If you search on something like “Sore hamstring behind the knee”, the first few hits that come up will most likely be reputable looking articles from well-known sources describing hamstring tendinitis, a common runner’s curse. However, after reading a few of them you’ll get tired of reading about the RICE method (Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation) and will probably scroll down into some of the lesser known links.

You’ll likely find all kinds of advice about stretches that you can do, yoga poses that will probably help, and much more. All of this can be good information. But you run the risk of misdiagnosing yourself and making matters worse.

With a chronic injury, the important rule to remember is to listen to your body. If your pain is low (and that means actually low, not ‘bearable’ or ‘not too bad’) and you’re comfortable with the benefits you’ll receive from stretching or yoga, you may be fine to experiment with internet-based advice. Only you can know when it’s time to seek more robust help or when a chronic injury has gone past the point of being an annoyance and has become something that needs to be dealt with in a more direct manner.

Acute running injuries – Know their signs

When something more acute happens, a twisted ankle, a blown-out knee, you’ll know it. If you must stop mid-run due to an acute event, or if you find you are changing your gait in order to avoid a stinging pain from every foot strike, then there is probably an acute injury at work.

In these situations, self-diagnosis almost never works. Googling symptoms and scrolling through the never-ending message boards of running clubs will guarantee you come across someone describing that exact same pain, probably in a post from 10 years ago. While there’s nothing wrong with reading up, with an acute injury the path to recovery will depend entirely on professional diagnosis. You probably won’t be able to tell the difference between an ankle sprain and a bone fracture. You definitely won’t be able to tell the difference between a torn calf muscle and Achilles tendonitis.

Only a medical professional will be able to do so and getting to one will be a much smarter choice than consulting only with Dr. Google. The recovery plan for each of these injuries will be vastly different, so it is critical that you are treating the right cause.

Recovery from running injuries,  and how to heal

Focus on recovery. Let your body heal from running injuries, don’t make it worse

Rest really is the best medicine for so many of the typical injuries that runners develop. The important decision you must make is understanding how much rest will be enough. There are no hard and fast rules to follow, and only you can know whether you’re putting yourself at risk by starting back too soon.

Be sure not to lie to yourself. Don’t ignore pain. If you start out, and get through a mile feeling great, but then things start to get worse and the pain starts coming back, make sure you’ve planned your route so that you are able to cut it short and be back on the couch as soon as possible.

Depending on the type of injury, trying to run through it may just be making it worse. Things may seem strong enough to keep going, but you will run the risk of prolonging your recovery or even doing something irreparable if you push too hard.

Know when to let go of a training plan

Many of us that train for distance races love printing out a training plan and marking off the days and weeks leading up to the race. We love planning out our weekends around long runs and obsessing about the miles per week and all the other delightful numbers we can crunch as part of our sport.

Sometimes there are even plane tickets and hotel rooms reserved, all compounding the stress of what would happen if you got hurt and had to suddenly drop out. When an injury hits during training season, the first thought does not tend to be “Should I call an ambulance” or “will I be able to go to work tomorrow”.

The first thought that hits us is usually “Oh No! What will this mean for the London Marathon!” Or, fill in the blank with the name of the race for which you’ve been training.

Getting the appropriate care, and understanding the root cause of your injury are the steps you need to take. Don’t get ahead of yourself and assume that all is lost. But once you’ve confirmed your diagnosis, if a doctor says you can’t run for four weeks, the race is most likely off.

There is no race that is more important that your long-term health, and your long-term ability to make it to future races.

This can be a tough pill to swallow, especially with the emotional significance that many of us tend to attach to races. Thoughts like “I’m running this marathon for my 40th birthday”, or “I’m doing this for a charitable cause that touches my family directly” can make us think that the race is more important than our health. Such conclusions are certainly understandable, and even valiant, but once the emotions settle down we have to realise when it is time to let go.

Proper recovery from injury is the key for better running

Google fallacies – Confirmation bias and doom scrolling

Getting the appropriate care, and understanding the root cause of your injury are the steps you need to take. Don’t get ahead of yourself and assume that all is lost. But once you’ve confirmed your diagnosis, if a doctor says you can’t run for four weeks, the race is most likely off. There is no race that is more important that your long-term health, and your long-term ability to make it to future races. This can be a tough pill to swallow, especially with the emotional significance that many of us tend to attach to races. Thoughts like “I’m running this marathon for my 40th birthday”, or “I’m doing this for a charitable cause that touches my family directly” can make us think that the race is more important than our health. Such conclusions are certainly understandable, and even valiant, but once the emotions settle down we have to realize when it is time to let go.

Search 1: I have a sore hamstring

Search 2: I have a sore hamstring from running

Search 3: How long can I run after pulling my hamstring

Search 4: Can I run a marathon three weeks after I pulled my hamstring

Search 5: Can I run a marathon with a pulled hamstring

Many of us have run through cycles of search strings just like this one. The first two searches will yield useful results, lay out the facts, and probably describe the problem that we’re having. However, they will all likely recommend RICE, with a focus on the Rest. That kind of answer is not what someone ten weeks in to a fourteen-week training plan wants to hear, so they move on to search three. A specific string like that will yield less informational articles from reputable sources and will more likely lead to message boards or running club websites where individual posters are engaging in non-professional medical speculation.

If that doesn’t give the desired results, it is possible that Searches 4 or 5 may even be tried. These will definitely lead you to anecdotal evidence of someone posting on a remote message board you’ve never heard of, probably from many years ago, from a country you don’t live anywhere near. Some of the things this hard-found post might say:

  • I pulled my hamstring and was fine the next day
  • I pulled my hamstring the night before the London marathon and ran the whole thing. I even got a PR
  • I just take a bunch of Ibuprofen the night before and the morning of the race and I’m fine
  • Don’t go to a physio – they’re all just quacks. Hamstrings are just a conspiracy.

After working hard to find the post that tells you what you want or need to hear, you may feel relieved and overjoyed that your training plan still has possibilities. If this guy had the exact same problem that I’m having, and he was able to run, and everything was fine… Well then of course I’ll be fine. Done and done!

The fallacy of this line of logic doesn’t need correction or explanation. We all understand that desperate times lead to illogical decision making. Training for a big race can be a heavy undertaking, one to which we dedicate many hours and sacrifice many opportunities. If we are running as part of a charity team, we have feelings of guilt towards letting the charity down, as well as the friends and family that have donated to sponsor the entry.

Getting injured and letting go of a training plan are not often things that we want to have happen on the same day. Just remember that going down this google rabbit hole is not going to change any facts. It is not going to make your hamstring un-torn. Proper diagnostic care, proper recovery, and realistic goal setting will allow you to make a clear-headed decision once the time comes.

Googling how to treat running Injuries and speed recovery healing for better running

Doom scrolling – all about running injuries

Doom scrolling can be thought of as the opposite to Confirmation Bias. It occurs when we are convinced that we have ended our running careers due to overdoing it and start searching for worst-case scenarios. Like the string examples above, an example of a doom scroll can look like this:

Search 1: Sore Achilles

Search 2: Torn Achilles

Search 3: Achilles injury stopped me from running for the rest of my life

Search 4: Why hasn’t anyone ever recovered from an Achilles injury in the history of running

Search 5: Why did I ever start running in the first place, this is terrible, and I am sad

Search engines are built to keep us engaged and to keep us searching. Keep that in mind as you research your symptoms, as it will often be the case that the clicks get given to the most dramatic sounding links. Before letting your tendency to doom scroll get the best of you, remember that the search engine has not seen your injury, it does not know the details of your symptoms and how they compare to the hundreds of similar cases that professionals have seen, and the information you are consuming is not the same as professional diagnosis or advice.

The line between useful information and manipulative attention-grabbing content can be a fine one, and learning how to distinguish between the two is a skill that takes some time to learn.

Personal training for runners help minimise the risks of injuires

Find Complementing Professional Resources

With a painful, acute injury, a visit to a medical professional with imaging and diagnostic capabilities will be important. In addition to this visit, there are also many options available in the professional community that can help speed up your recovery also keeping your mind away from obsessing over worst-case scenarios.

How Massage can help running injuries

Massage for runners is an excellent approach to treating sore muscles, tight joints and tendons, as well as getting some much-needed physical relaxation. There are several massage techniques out there, and several different kinds of professional massage therapists that you can visit. When going for a specific running related injury, you can find someone that specializes in Sports Massage. This technique focusing on resolving sore muscles specific to sports-related injuries can be invaluable to long-term recovery. Many runners factor in massage therapy regularly even when not experiencing pain or injury.

Picking a massage therapist can be a daunting task, as many of the pitfalls of googling we’ve already discussed can apply here as well. But in this case, there are several good characteristics of the internet that can help us. Reviews from previous customers, testimonials about a massage therapist’s skills and experience, as well as their own websites that describe their techniques and methodologies are all great research tools at your disposal.

Physical Therapy

A medical diagnosis may result in a prescription to visit a physio, or you may visit one on your own accord. There are many physios that specialize in running and can perform a variety of gait-analysis tests in order to treat the underlying causes of chronic pain and offer suggestions to runners to improve their running form and avoid injury in the future. Physios usually start with an injury and develop a plan from there, but they can also be great resources for preventative advice. Everything from the footwear we choose to the way we think about the mechanics of running can be addressed with a good sports physio.

Personal Training

Personal trainers, or even running coaches, can be great resources to those that have the means to work with such professionals. They can help you set realistic goals for your running and give advice on your training practices and conditioning routines to help you enhance your performance. This group does not often have significant medical training though, so be sure to validate any diagnostic advice given.

Mindfulness Training

Just as important as focusing on the recovery of the body, you can also seek out professional coaching in mindfulness techniques. Part of the attraction of doom-searching on google is that we need to calm our minds down from the prospect of sitting out a race we’ve been training for, or finding out we’ve permanently hurt ourselves and need to switch to cycling (gasp!). Approaching an injury and the associated recovery with a clear mind is critical to processing through the recovery and getting yourself back out there.

Mindfulness techniques tend to be over simplified, so it is recommended to start with a professional coach or even one of the mainstream applications such as Headspace or Calm. Its not as simple as sitting down and relaxing. Mindful meditation focuses on recognizing the difference between yourself and your thoughts and translating that technique to occurrences throughout your day.

The Reality of Cost

Many of these remedies come with a price tag. Depending on your country and community, access to medical care is not always guaranteed, and things like massage and personal training are often in the category of farfetched luxuries. This means that for many people, Google or other sources of anecdotal advice may be the only resources available. The running community understands this, and that is why there are some ways to navigate the abundance of information to find the advice that best applies.

Always reading from reputable sources, that have clear lines to journalistic integrity and sports medicine professionals is a good start, and knowing how to spot the difference between these sites and the sites that exist merely for clicks is a skill many of us have refined over the years.

In addition, there are often ways to receive professional care in affordable ways. Many clinics offer public workshops. A lot of running clubs have a coach available that can serve as an individual coach or personal trainer for those specific questions you have. Until access to care is equalized globally, we must all work on finding ways to help each other get the help we need.

If you are a medical professional, or work in any sports-injury related field, perhaps you can extend pro-bono support to your community, or specifically to your running club if you’re part of one. Even one extra session a week could be all it takes to make someone’s love of running continue a healthy course.

Conclusion

All runners that experience injuries will need to rest in order to recover. What one does with their time while resting is up to them, but endlessly googling your specific circumstance will not usually lead to effective or useful advice. The best thing you can do is seek professional care, then once you’ve received a diagnosis, a much more targeted research session can begin.

Reading about best-case anecdotes or worst-case horror stories may feed your need for assurance, but those stories are not going to change anything. They won’t make you magically recovered, nor will reading them put you permanently on the bench. Keep calm, understand the motives behind each piece of internet content, and rest. Your body has an amazing ability to heal itself, you just need to let it do its job!

Ben has been a practical pain management trainer and a celebrated massage therapist. He believes human well-being is deeply connected to the health of mind and body both, including deep tissues. He holds numerous certifications for best of breeds massage techniques helping him on a mission for healthy London and then rest of the world. He has been an active contributor in massage technique research and on Massaggi blog.