Running: How to safely make the surface transition from winter to spring

20 Apr

Running injuries are most frequent in spring when your body must adjust to a new surface

running on bike path

If you’re a runner, the warm weather of spring is an invitation to switch your indoor routine (if you have one) to an outdoor routine and look at trees instead of a TV. However, just after moving to outdoor activity is the most likely time to experience an injury, as your body hasn’t adjusted to the demands of running outdoors. The most obvious and riskiest change for your body is the surface you run on.

If you run on a treadmill all winter, you’re running on a soft surface with low impact to your legs, ankles and feet. Once you switch your routine to the outdoors, you subject your body to a combination of surfaces with different impacts: paved streets, concrete sidewalks, gravel, grass, sand, etc. Each of these surfaces offers advantages and disadvantages.

While streets and sidewalks are generally even and free of hidden obstacles, they don’t “give” underneath your feet like grass, sand and even gravel do. That means that your body is completely absorbing the shock of your feet hitting the surface. Hard surfaces are great for your upward movement (you get a “bounce” when you push off), but torture for your downward movement. The energy created when your feet come in contact with pavement has to go somewhere, and if it can’t go down into a soft surface, it will go up through your body, starting at your feet and ending around your waistline.

Most of this kinetic energy is absorbed by a properly fitted running shoe and warmed up, conditioned leg muscles. If you’re in shape, this is no problem. But early in the season when you’re at your least conditioned, your body might react with shin splints, sore feet, sore ankles, or back pain.

Running on grass or sand has its pros and cons as well. While running on these surfaces won’t cause you any high impact injuries, they tend to be uneven, which puts your ankles and legs at risk of injury from a twist, roll or sprain. An injury of this nature will put you out of commission for upwards of 4 weeks, blowing your spring routine out of the water.

Running stretches to avoid pain

Beginner and expert runners alike can best protect themselves by doing simple stretches before and after their running routine. Make sure to stretch the muscles in your back by turning side to side, then move the routine down through your glutes, hamstrings, calves, ankles and feet. These actions warm up your muscles, tendons and ligaments, increasing blood flow to these areas, which make them better able to resist the impact they’re about to experience. Warming up should also include a few minutes of walking before running. Check this link for a simple stretching routine.

After your run, a cooling down period is also important for your body so as to avoid tense, strained muscles. Do the stretching routine outlined above, but in the opposite order: walk for a few minutes to reduce your heart rate, then perform stretches starting with your toes and working up to your back.

Warming up and cooling down are absolutely essential to a safe running routine. As we age, the warm up and cool down periods should increase by a few minutes every year.

running on an athletic field is bestAlways be aware of your body’s signals and the surface you’re running on, and keep your eyes open for any obstacles. If you do twist or roll your ankle or experience mild or severe pain in your ankles or feet, call East Penn Foot and Ankle Associates to be examined immediately. A thorough examination could be the difference between getting back to your running routine in a week or two or sitting out the spring.

P.S.: The best surface to run on is a smooth gravel or grass track at a high school or college when it’s not being used by the athletes.

Here are some excellent tips on running form your should read, which will help you create the proper mechanics for your body.

Here’s a guide for new runners.

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