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Orthopaedic & Rehabilitation Institute

A Common Sense Approach to Long-Distance Running

Long-distance running is one of the most demanding of sports. It pushes even the most experienced athlete to the limits of endurance, strength and resilience. It’s no surprise then that most long-distance runners experience a musculoskeletal injury at one time or another. And in some cases, long-distance running can also pose other health risks for certain individuals. But with a common sense approach to training, nutrition and competition, most long-distance runners can stay healthy and remain in peak condition for many years.

Moira Davenport, MD, a sports medicine physician at Alleghney Sports Medicine, part of Allegheny Health System’s Orthopaedic & Rehabilitation Institute, points out that each person has to weigh the benefits versus the risks of long-distance running.

“Long-distance running is a great way to stay in shape and gives participants a major sense of accomplishment,” says Dr. Davenport, who also is an experienced long-distance runner. “However, long-distance running can also be taxing on the body and may not be suitable for individuals with pre-existing health problems. If you have been sedentary for a long period of time or have a history of health problems, it’s a good idea to get a physical exam before starting a long-distance training program.”

When training for a marathon or long race, runners should avoid doing too much too soon. “Set a goal for yourself and give yourself enough time to gradually build up to that goal,” Dr. Davenport recommends. “This is especially important for runners who are participating in their first long-distance event. Try to start training for your first long race a year in advance. That will help to gradually acclimate your muscles, tendons and ligaments, as well as your heart, to running longer distances. You should also not run a race longer or faster than you trained for.”

Even when runners are in peak condition, they should take special care to avoid problems that could potentially occur during a marathon or longer race. “If you develop a cold or low-grade fever before a race, it’s probably not a good idea to participate in the event,” says Dr. Davenport. “It’s difficult to run a long distance race if you aren’t breathing at your regular efficiency. And before and during the race, remember to stay properly hydrated.”

Recently, several studies have proposed that long-distance running can be hazardous to a runner’s health. While some long-distance runners are at risk for dying of cardiac arrest during a marathon, the risk is extremely small, says Dr. Davenport. “About one in 50,000 persons will have some catastrophic event while running a marathon. In contrast, 335,000 people are estimated to die from sudden cardiac death each year (about 918 per day). And most of those long-distance runners who suffer cardiac death already have a preexisting health problem. That’s why it is important to have a physician check for preexisting conditions that could trigger sudden cardiac arrest.”

While most long-distance runners won’t suffer cardiac arrest during a race, they are vulnerable to a wide range of injuries, particularly those involving the lower body. Dr. Davenport typically sees patients who suffer injuries to the knee, hip, thigh, lower leg, ankle and foot. “There are many causes for running injuries, such as improper footwear, running on hard or uneven surfaces, failing to stretch beforehand and poor biomechanics,” she says. “By making a few adjustments, runners can often avoid these nagging injuries. For minor injuries, rest, anti-inflammatory painkillers and ice can offer relief. If discomfort continues, then it’s time to see a sports medicine physician.”

At Allegheny Sports Medicine, specialists apply their clinical expertise to quickly establish an accurate diagnosis and develop a plan of care that fits the needs of each patient who suffers a sport injury. Allegheny Sports Medicine provides care for hundreds of local athletes, ranging from members of the Pittsburgh Pirates to athletes from area colleges and high schools to the weekend warrior. Allegheny Sports Medicine, which also works with the Great Race, offer specialized assessment and treatment for runners of all levels. Specialists first explore a wide range of non-surgical therapeutic interventions to eliminate pain and restore normal function. When necessary, AGH’s surgeons use advanced surgical techniques to help athletes resume participating in their favorite sport. In addition, Allegheny Sports Medicine provides physical therapy at a variety of sites conveniently located throughout western Pennsylvania.

Allegheny Sports Medicine is also actively involved in educating the area’s athletes, coaches and parents about injury prevention and recognition. “By teaching proper strength building, flexibility, conditioning, endurance and training techniques to the community, we believe we can help to minimize the risk of injury occurrence,” says Dr. Davenport.

By taking proper care of their bodies, runners can continue running long distance for many years. And, as many studies show, runners often remain healthier than many people who do not exercise. “It is often noted that running slows the aging clock,” says Dr. Davenport. “Allegheny Sports Medicine is committed to helping runners continue their passion throughout their lives by providing the highest quality services and personalized attention. Many of our staff are also runners and they are in tune with the needs of the athlete. We are ready to help each athlete reach their full potential, no matter what their age or level of expertise.”


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