How to best manage injuries and illnesses while you’re out on a run.
Illustrations by Oliver Baker.
While running has a way of making you feel invincible at times, unexpected things can occasionally occur while you’re out on the trails. Minor injuries, illnesses and medical emergencies are particularly challenging to grapple with when you are miles from home. You may have wondered: “What should I do if I have an allergic reaction?” “What if I take a nasty fall?” “What if I get bitten by a snake?”
To arm you with a bit of on-the-go first-aid knowledge, we consulted Dr. Mark Westfall, M.D., medical director for the Fox Cities Marathon and Bryan Fass, an athletic trainer, EMT and founder and president of Fit Responder, a public safety fitness, wellness and injury prevention program. While you might not have all the necessary supplies and facilities at your fingertips when you’re out on a run, this will give you an idea of the first steps you should take to tend to certain injuries or illnesses.
Bleeding From A Fall
When you fall while out on a run, first focus on controlling bleeding with direct pressure using any garment you have handy. “A scrape is no big deal, but active bleeding is,” Fass explains. “Tie something around the wound and apply pressure. If possible, elevate the area.”
When you get home, Westfall says, “Clean the wound with soap and water, and if the skin edges are gaping and/or the bleeding is hard to control, seek medical attention.”
Depending on the severity, you may be able to hobble home, at which point you should rest, ice and elevate. “If possible, though, call an Uber,” Fass advises.
“If it’s not improving in 2–3 days, seek medical attention for possible X-rays and evaluation for fracture,” Westfall adds. “Particularly immediately after an injury or sprain, I find an ice bath or slush for 20–30 minutes every 2–3 hours for the first 24 hours to be very helpful.”
If you are bleeding, it’s important to bandage the area and apply direct pressure. Using a shirt or other garment will work until you can seek medical attention. In the case of a snake bite, Fass recommends calling 911 and wrapping around the actual bite location to let it bleed. “And don’t do anything silly like trying to suck out the venom,” he says.
Westfall adds, “If at all possible, take a picture of the snake or if you killed it, bring it to the emergency room for identification and anti-venom if needed.”
For other animal bites, Westfall suggests bandaging and applying pressure to the area first and then seeking medical attention and asking about antibiotics, updating your tetanus shot and considering a rabies prophylaxis.
If you just have a local reaction to a sting, which usually includes redness and burning, you should simply grab some ice and perhaps Benadryl cream when you return home from your run. Fass also suggests not picking at the stinger. “Instead, use a credit card to scrape the stinger off. Grabbing or pinching it can push any remaining venom into you,” he says.
Westfall also advises to be aware of a more serious reaction, adding, “Watch and be alert for signs of allergy or anaphylaxis—hives, swelling of the lips or tongue or trouble breathing.” In that case, it’s important to call 911, and if you have an EpiPen prescribed for a known allergy, be sure to have that along to administer immediately.
This is where listening to your body is of the utmost importance. You’re better off preventing heat-related illnesses by drinking fluids and slowing down than pushing yourself to the point of no return. “If you’re feeling weak, light-headed and nauseated, slow down or stop running,” Westfall says. “Move to a shady area, lie down, continue to drink small amounts of fluids, especially an electrolyte solution.”
Fass emphasizes the importance of getting out of the heat as soon as possible, adding, “Apply cold packs to the armpits, groin, back of the neck and behind the knees.” If vomiting develops or you can’t get up, it’s important to seek medical attention as soon as possible. If you have a phone handy, this would be a time you should call 911. “Heat emergencies can progress from minor symptoms to heat stroke very quickly,” he says. “Do not hesitate to call for help sooner than later.”