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Safety Tips: Running

Whether it's as part of a high school track program or cross-country team or just a way of getting in shape, running is a wonderful sport. It's great exercise, virtually anyone can do it, and all you really need to get started is a good pair of sneakers.

But running is not without its risks. Injuries — from sprained ankles and blisters to stress fractures and tendonitis — are common. And runners need to be aware of some hazards (from vehicles to wild animals) when choosing a place to run.

To keep things safe while running, follow these tips:

Avoiding Running Injuries

Up to half of all runners are injured every year, so the odds are good that at some point in your running career you will get injured.

Running, especially on asphalt or other hard surfaces, puts a lot of stress on the legs and back. This can lead to lots of different problems. The most common running injuries include sprained ankles, blisters, tendonitis, chondromalacia (runner's knee), iliotibial band (ITB) syndrome, heel pain, and shinsplints. Teen runners are also at risk of growth plate injuries.

Two steps can help you avoid serious injuries from running:

  1. Try to prevent injuries from happening in the first place. Use the right gear, warm up your muscles before you start, and take precautions to deal with weather conditions — like staying well hydrated in hot weather and keeping muscles warm in the cold.
  2. Stop running as soon as you notice signs of trouble. Ignoring the warning signs of an injury will only lead to bigger problems down the road.

Gear Guidelines

Running might require less gear than other sports, but it is still vitally important to get the right equipment to minimize the stresses it puts on your body. Anyone who has ever run in the wrong shoes can tell you what a painful experience it can be, and anyone who has run in the wrong socks probably has blisters to prove it.

Here are a few tips to make sure you get the right footwear before you start running:

Shoes

Before you buy a pair of running sneakers, know what sort of foot you have. Are your feet wide or narrow? Do you have flat feet? High arches? Different feet need different sneakers to provide maximum support and comfort. If you don't know what sort of foot you have or what kind of sneaker will work best for you, consult a trained professional at a running specialty store.

Minimalist shoes are becoming popular, but there's no evidence that they reduce injuries. Look for running shoes that provide good support, starting with a thick, shock-absorbing sole. Runners with flat feet should choose shoes that advertise "motion control" or "stability." Runners with high-arched feet should look for shoes that describe themselves as "flexible" or "cushioned."

Wearing shoes that fit correctly is more important in running than in virtually any other sport. As you rack up the miles, any hot spots or discomfort will become magnified and lead to blisters, toenail problems, and may contribute to leg problems.

If you plan on running on trails or in bad weather, you'll need trail-running shoes with extra traction, stability, and durability. Whichever type of shoes you end up purchasing, make sure they are laced up snugly so they're comfortable but not so tight that they cause discomfort.

Socks

Running socks come in a variety of materials, thicknesses, and sizes. The most important factor is material. Stay away from socks made from 100% cotton. When cotton gets wet, it stays wet, leading to blisters in the summer and cold feet in the winter. Instead, choose socks made from wool or synthetic materials such as polyester and acrylic.

Some runners like thicker socks for extra cushioning while others prefer thin socks, particularly in warm weather. Make sure you wear the socks you plan to wear when running while you try on sneakers to ensure a proper fit.

Choose Where to Run

One of the nice things about running is that you can do it almost anywhere. Running on a track or indoors on a treadmill are options, but lots of runners prefer the variety and challenge of running on roads or trails.

In most cases, it will be possible to simply step out your front door and begin. That being said, there are definitely safer places to run and places that you might want to avoid.

Road Runners

Look for streets that have sidewalks or wide shoulders. If there are no sidewalks or shoulders, and you find yourself having to run in the street, try to find an area with minimal automobile traffic. Always run toward oncoming cars so you can see any potential problems before they reach you.

Avoid running routes that take you through bad neighborhoods. If you're running in an unfamiliar area, be prepared to change your route or turn around if you sense that the area you're headed toward may not be safe. Trust your intuition.

Find someone to run with if you can — there's safety in numbers. Can't find a running partner? Consider joining a running club through your school or the local parks and recreation department. When running in a group, be sure to run single file and keep to the side of the road. Always yield the right-of-way to vehicles at intersections. Don't assume that cars will stop or alter their paths for you. Obey all traffic rules and signals.

Trail Runners

Choose well-maintained trails. Steer clear of trails that are overgrown or covered with fallen branches — you don't want to trip or encounter ticks or poison ivy! Also, you should avoid trails that travel through deserted areas or take you far away from homes and businesses. Know the location of public phones and the fastest way back to civilization in the event of an emergency.

Watch for dogs or wild animals. If you encounter a mountain lion, bear, or other dangerous animal stop running and face it. Running may trigger the animal's instinct to attack. Make yourself look larger by raising your hands over your head. Give the animal plenty of room to escape. If the animal appears to be acting aggressively, throw rocks, sticks, or whatever is readily available at it. Stay facing the animal.

If you run into an aggressive dog, don't make eye contact — the dog might see this as a threat. The dog may be trying to defend its territory, so stop running and walk to the other side of the street. If the dog approaches, stand still. In a firm, calm voice, say "No" or "Go home." If you keep running into the same dog, choose a new route or file a report with animal control.

Plan for Weather

Rain and Snow

If you intend to run in rain or snow, make sure you dress for the conditions (windproof jacket, hat, gloves, etc.). Wear synthetic fabrics that will help wick away moisture from your body. Consider putting Vaseline or Band-aids on your nipples to keep them from being chafed by a wet shirt.

Wind

If it's windy, run more slowly than you normally would when facing into the wind. This will help you keep from overexerting yourself while still giving you the same amount of exercise. Try to start your run by heading into the wind so that you will have the wind at your back later in the run when you are tired.

Heat

On hot days, drink plenty of water before your run and bring extra water with you. Heat prostration can be a very serious problem for runners. Wear white clothing to reflect the sun's rays and a hat to shade your head from the sun, and stop running if you feel faint or uncomfortable in any way.

Before You Start

Before you begin, warm up. Start with a brisk walk or light jog, or do some jumping jacks to get the blood flowing. Then be sure to stretch well, with a particular focus on your calves, hamstrings, quadriceps, and ankles. Dynamic stretching, where you do slow, controlled movements to improve range of motion is thought to be more effective than static stretching before a run or workout.

Carry a few essentials with you. These include some form of identification, a cell phone or change for a pay phone, and a whistle. Don't wear headphones or earbuds or anything else that might make you less aware of your surroundings while you run.

Tell a friend or family member your running route and when you plan to return. If no one is available, write down your plans so you can be located in the event of an emergency.

While Running

Try to run only during daylight hours, if possible. If you must run at night, avoid dimly lit areas and wear bright and/or reflective clothes so that others can see you clearly.

When you begin, have a definite idea of how far you intend to go. Less experienced runners should start by running short distances until they build up their stamina and get a better idea of how far they can run safely.

Younger teens,are still developing and may be at more risk for injury from over-training and running long distances. As a general guideline, a 10K race is the upper limit of what a 13-year-old should attempt, and no one under 18 should try to run a marathon. (Most marathons limit their entries to people 18 and older.)

Stay alert. The more aware you are of your surroundings and the other people around you, the less vulnerable you will be. Staying safe while running involves the same common sense you use to stay safe anywhere else, like avoiding parked cars and dark areas, and taking note of who is directly behind you and ahead of you.

If a car passes you more than once or seems suspicious, try to note or take a photo of the license plate number. Make it clear that you are aware of the vehicle. Most runners don't get attacked, especially if they take precautions like running in populated areas. You just need to use common sense.

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: January 2014