Running Reader Q: My Knee Hurts When I Run. Should I Get a Brace?

Happy Knees Happy RunnerLaurel has recently returned to running after taking some time off to focus on getting a masters degree. “I was really into it, but I kept getting shin splints,” says Laurel. “When my schedule got tighter with classes, I sort of stopped working a run into my day because it was painful anyway.”

Now, she’s back—the diploma is on her wall and she’s moved to a new city where running routes abound! “I’m excited about running again,” she says. “I’m ramping up slowly, but now my left knee is starting to bother me. Should I start wearing a brace?”

I’m a big believer in listening to your body. Pain is a message that something is wrong. Rather than trying to mask it with a brace, I think Laurel needs to figure out what’s really causing the problem—especially since she’s had injuries in the past. To double-check my diagnosis, I reached out to New York City-based rehabilitation specialist Nadya Swedan, M.D.

Dr. Swedan, what could be causing Laurel’s knee pain? “It sounds like she’s experiencing patellofemoral knee pain, also known as runner’s knee. The associated pain could be stemming from a couple of places—she may have injured the cartilage beneath the kneecap, or it could be tendonitis. Everyone runs differently, so depending on her gait Laurel could have gotten runner’s knee because her leg muscles are weak or imbalanced, or the muscles and tendons connected to the knee have become tight from overuse. A tight IT band, or tight quads and hamstrings are often the culprits.”

How do you feel about braces and compression bands? Would they help Laurel? “Those braces and bands are sporting goods store solutions, and I would never recommend them. Sure, using one takes the tension off the power tendon around the joint, but it would be dangerous to slide one on and continue running. It would become a crutch for Laurel—soon she wouldn’t be able to run without it, because it would change the alignment of her knee and lead to injuries elsewhere. Her best bet is to focus on fixing the root of the problem with strength training and stretching.”  

What should she do to alleviate the pain? “Ice is her knee’s best friend. It will alleviate any swelling, decrease the inflammation, and help her body’s own healing mechanisms kick in. She could also take some ibuprofen, but I definitely don’t want her to pop a couple and then head out for a run—that might make her knee worse.” 

Can Laurel keep running? “She can run a little bit, nice and easy, but if the pain continues she should get off her feet. Cycling, with the bike seat raised a bit higher to take pressure off the knee, and the elliptical machine would be good cardio options for her. Rollerblading would also be really great right now, because it strengthens the inner and outer thigh muscles—areas that tend be weak in runners.”

Thanks, Dr. Swedan. I think Laurel will be happy to hear this!

Laurel is a smart cookie, so I’m pretty sure she’ll listen to her body and follow the doctor’s advice. (I just hope she doesn’t sign up for roller derby and find herself with a whole new set of injuries!)

Runner’s knee is super common—have you ever experienced it? What did you do to get rid of it? 

Running And Heels, For Me They Don’t Mix

Yesterday my quads were sore again. It felt like I’d run another marathon over the weekend—only I hadn’t. I’m being good about sticking to my recovery plan and easing back into running. I did my scheduled light run last night anyway, thinking maybe the muscles needed a little exercise to loosen up. Three miles of trails later (soft ground is easier on your body than pavement), my legs still hurt and going down a flight of stairs was no picnic.

This morning, I was reaching for a pair of pants I haven’t worn since last summer and remembered they were hemmed to be worn with heels. That’s when and it dawned on me—I wore cowboy boots that make me an inch and a half taller all day on Sunday. That’s why my quads are so sore!

 High heels throw your body out of alignment. To be able to walk in them without falling, you have to thrust your pelvis forward, which puts stress on your lower back and engages your legs muscles, from your calves up to your quads and glutes. I’d given them up during marathon training when I started having shin pain. So now, my body is used to being in flats and even walking around (and standing in a museum for a few hours) with the slightest lift gave my thighs a major workout.

Still, heels make my legs look hot! So I have two options: I can walk around in flats for the rest of my life, or I can go into training to be able to wear high ones again. (I’ll be wearing the ones in this photo to a friend’s wedding in October, so the choice has been made.)

Would you give up sexy stilettos and kitten heels to improve your running?

Originally posted in Running With It on Shape.com.

Here Comes The Pain Again

OK gang, I’m excited! So excited that I’ve been pushing the speed a little too much since last Thursday. The result: An angry left shin. But I’m confident that it won’t prevent me from finishing Boston—in 4 days!

This morning I attempted to do four 1-mile repeats at race pace, but I’m so keyed up that I was about 10 seconds too fast. To circumvent the post-run throbbing in my shin I tried something new; I pulled on a pair of Vitalsox Performance Graduated Compression socks (seen here in this lovely photo provided by the company). One run certainly isn’t a scientific study, but I think these things really do stimulate circulation and improve muscle recovery—my legs felt springier, and my feet were super comfy.

And even though they make me look more like a soccer player than a runner, I’m planning to wear them on the big day. My marathon photos will all be keepers!

Countdown to the Boston Marathon: 4 days!

Have you ever tried compression socks? Are you as psyched as I am for Monday?

Originally posted in Running With It on Shape.com.

It’s Time To Be A Goal Setter

This morning I had coffee with Neil Cook, a running and triathlon coach at Asphalt Green in NYC. I wanted to pick his brain about Boston—he’s run it in the past and has coached several athletes to victory there. I also wanted him to tell me that I could finish in my original goal of 3:45. Instead, I came away with a caffeine buzz, a Starbuck’s napkin full of notes, and a head swimming with numbers. It’s time for me to smell the vanilla latte and be a lot more realistic.

I’ve had a few setbacks during training this season—the flu, shin splints, crazy winter storms—but I’m not going to make excuses. I haven’t put in the mileage or the effort to hope for such a speedy finishing time. Coach Neil wants me to create three new goals for myself: 1. The one I can hit only if the marathon gods are smiling upon me (perfect weather, my legs feel incredible, complete mental focus); 2. The time my current level of fitness and training predicts; and, 3. An at-all-costs number that I’m guaranteed to reach. Which means I’m looking at: 3:55, 4:06, and just plain finishing.

If I were the type of person who set the bar low, I could be happily surprised by how well things turn out when the outcome is better than anticipated. But I’m not; my expectations have always been too high—for racing and everything else in life. It’s going to be tough to accept something as practical as 4 hours. Still, it’s what I need to do.

Countdown To The Boston Marathon: 19 Days!

Do you set realistic goals for yourself? Or do you aim too high or low?

Originally posted in Running With It on Shape.com.