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While Chelsea Kotch of Portland, Maine, was training for her first half marathon in 2012, she knew to expect a certain degree of soreness. But a nagging pain in the arch of her foot raised more concern. When ibuprofen, icing and a 10-day break from running didn’t help, she knew it was time to get some help. “I was worried I had a stress fracture!” she remembers.
Her doctor, also a runner, knew right away what Kotch was experiencing—not a stress fracture, but plantar fasciitis. With a simple stretch twice a day, Kotch was able to eliminate her pain for good.
Stretching can be a lifesaver when it comes to preventing and treating common running injures, says Sarah Thompson, a physical therapist who works with runners at Rehab Plus Ahwatukee in Phoenix, Ariz. The rub? Many athletes choose the wrong stretches or, worse, perform them incorrectly, aggravating the injury. Treat the four most common running injuries the natural way by stretching them out right.
SYMPTOM: Knee pain in or behind the patella (in the center as opposed to the side like with ITBS). Sometimes this is accompanied by a “crunching” sound in the knee or a sensation that the knee is giving out.
CAUSE: The knee isn’t tracking with proper alignment while running. Females are at particular risk due to wider hips, which can cause the knee to angle inward while running.
STRETCH RX: When hamstrings are tight, the knee can be pulled out of alignment, so stretching this muscle is crucial. Lie on your back with your pelvis flat on the ground. Keeping your knee as straight as possible, raise the affected leg toward your head. Hold the lower thigh and pull until you feel a light stretch. Hold for 30 seconds, then rest for 10 seconds. Repeat three times.
SYMPTOM: A stabbing pain near the heel or along the arch of the foot that’s usually worse after running or right after waking.
CAUSE: The plantar fascia, a thin band of connective tissue running from the heel to the base of your toes, is designed to absorb the abuse your foot takes while running—but it can only take so much. Overtraining, a sudden increase in mileage or poor footwear can cause the tissue to act out.
STRETCH RX: While sitting, cross one foot over the opposite knee. Gently grasp the top of your raised foot and slowly pull your toes back until you feel a stretch in your arch. Hold for a count of 10 seconds, then rest for 10 seconds. Repeat a total of 10 times.
SYMPTOM: A sharp, intense pain in the hip, which is made worse by running, sitting or sleeping on your side.
CAUSE: This pain is indicative of damage to the bursa, a fluid-filled sac providing lubrication between muscle and bone. Left untreated, the pain can spread and become even more intense.
STRETCH RX: Because bursitis is exacerbated by tight musculature, stretching is very important in the treatment of this condition. Lie flat on your back and place the right foot on the left knee, creating a “figure 4” position. Slowly bend the left knee and place your hands around the left thigh. Pull your thigh close to your chest until you feel a stretch in the butt. Hold this stretch for 30 seconds, then switch legs. Repeat three times on each leg.
ILIOTIBIAL BAND SYNDROME (ITBS)
SYMPTOM: Sharp pain on the outside of the knee that escalates during a run.
CAUSE: Your IT band is to blame. This dense cord of connective tissue runs from the outside of your hip to the top of the shin, hugging your knee joint along the way. During repetitive motion (like running or cycling), the band rubs against the bones in your joint, causing inflammation.
STRETCH RX: Because the IT band is very difficult to stretch, Thompson suggests runners call in reinforcements. While lying on your side, position a tennis ball or foam roller under the affected leg. Use your arms to move yourself over the roller, from hip to knee, for 30 seconds Rest for 30 seconds, then repeat five times.