Train Right: Follow These Tips Before Your Next 5K or Three-Day Walk

Train for your next 5K while protecting against strains, sprains and other injuries

An athletic man and woman run along the beach in preparation for an upcoming 5K race.

by Enass Rickards, Orthopedic Surgeon

With our mild climate, beautiful scenery and miles of running and walking trails, San Diego is a popular location for running and walking events from short 5K races to three-day walking events and marathons.

If you’d like to participate in an organized run or walk — or even just start your own exercise program — brush up on the basics of training and injury prevention.

The more you know about how to train safely and effectively, the more you’ll get out of your workouts. Plus, you’ll minimize the likelihood of getting injured and winding up on the sidelines.

Select the right footwear

Before you hit the road, make sure you’re wearing the right shoes for your sport. Both walking and running require specific types of shoes with different features for support, stability and cushioning. Most stores that specialize in running shoes offer complementary evaluations to help you find the right shoe for your foot.

The best time to shop for shoes is after a workout or at the end of the day, when your feet tend to expand the most. Many people choose an athletic shoe that is a full size larger than their other shoes.

Wear the same type of socks that you’ll wear when you work out, and go for a run or walk around the store to test out the shoes. The shoes should feel comfortable right away — “breaking them in” is a myth. Your toes should move freely and your heel should not slip.

Train at the optimum intensity for your skill level

One of the most common mistakes new runners make is doing too much, too soon. Set a weekly schedule that includes time off to rest and recover; for example, work out every other day. Start slowly and gradually work up to your goal, never increasing your distance by more than 10 percent per week.

Warming up before your workout raises your heart rate, loosens your muscles and joints, and prepares your body and mind for exercise.

Runners can walk quickly or run in place for a few minutes; walkers can warm up by walking as you normally would for five minutes, then pick up the pace to whatever speed gets your heart beating faster and lungs breathing more deeply.

Stay hydrated by drinking water before, during and after your workout. Dehydration can make you feel weak, lightheaded and fatigued — none of which will help your training! Don’t wait until you feel thirsty to drink; by the time thirst sets in, you’re already slightly dehydrated.

Drink about a pint of water 10 to 15 minutes before you start your workout, and during your cool down. If you will be walking or running longer than 20 minutes, bring water with you to drink along the way.

After your run or walk, cool down for a few minutes by slowing your pace until your breathing and heart rate return to normal. Gently stretch your muscles to keep them flexible and help ward off stiffness later.

It’s easy to skip the stretching portion of your workout, especially if your time is limited, but stretching is one of the most important keys to injury prevention.

Preventing injuries while training

Muscle cramps, strains and sprains can plague runners and walkers, especially when you’re first starting out. The good news is, you can help prevent them by training properly, being aware of your environment, and listening to your body.

Muscle cramps

Cramps are caused by involuntary muscle spasms. Runners often experience “side stitches” or cramps along the side of the lower abdomen, as well as cramps in the feet or legs.

The exact cause of cramps is unknown, but possible factors may include tight muscles, muscle fatigue and dehydration. Stretching helps keep muscles loose and long, which can help prevent the sudden contractions that cause cramps.

If you do get a cramp while running or walking, slow down or stop and gently stretch the cramped muscle until the pain subsides. For side stitches, stretch your arms overhead and breathe deeply to try to relax the muscles. If the cramp subsides quickly, you may continue your workout. If it doesn’t, or it returns, call it a day and let your body rest.

Strains and sprains

Strains are caused by an injury to a muscle or the tendons that connect muscle to bone. Sprains result from stretches or tears in the ligaments that connect bones to each other. Ankles, knees and hamstrings can be especially vulnerable to strains and sprains in runners and walkers.

To help avoid them, train on a smooth, even surface that absorbs some of the impact of your foot hitting the ground; for example, a running track or dirt trail. Hills and uneven surfaces can put added stress on the feet and ankles and increase your chances of twisting an ankle or knee.

Preventing injuries

If you suffer a sprain or strain despite your best efforts at prevention, stop training until it heals and follow the RICE treatment: rest, ice, compression and elevation. Mild strains and sprains should heal within a few days; more serious injuries need a doctor’s attention.

As with any activity, listen to your body and stop if you feel discomfort or fatigue. Your body can be your best judge of when to push harder and when to ease up.

This Scripps Health and Wellness information was provided by Enass Rickards, orthopedic surgeon at Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla.