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While there are a number of different injuries that can happen to runners, a few problem areas stand out. Know how to self diagnose each one, and you can run healthier year round. You should see a doctor for any health concern, but knowing alarm levels for different body areas can allow you to make smarter decisions earlier in the process.
Top of foot. Alarm level: 9 out of 10 The metatarsal bones on the top of the foot are susceptible to stress fractures, especially for people just starting out. But prior to something becoming a stress fracture, it usually goes through a period where it is just a quicker-healing stress reaction. Stop at the first sign of pain and rest until the pain goes away.
Bottom of foot. Alarm level: 4 out of 10 Usually, pain in the heel or bottom of the foot is plantar fasciitis, an ailment that many runners suffer when starting out. While it needs to be treated smartly, it usually doesn’t have the same awful prognosis as a stress fracture. If the pain is on the pad of your foot, it could be metatarsalgia, which needs to be treated quickly.
Ankle. Alarm level: 5 out of 10 Sprained ankles are a natural part of running on trails. But they can be painful and persist if you run through them. In general, if it gets better during a run, it is OK to run on most of the time. If it gets progressively worse, stop immediately.
Achilles. Alarm level: 10 out of 10 Most Achilles injuries start as minor aches before becoming major headaches. At the first sign of pain, rest from running until the pain leaves.
Shin. Alarm level: 8 out of 10 Shin splints and their evil cousin—tibial stress fractures—are nothing to mess with. The pain usually doesn’t get better on its own without rest.
Calves. Alarm level: 6 out of 10 A strained calf is common, but can linger if not treated properly. In general, soft-tissue injuries are less worrisome than hard-tissue damage.
Knees. Alarm level: 3 out of 10 Stress fractures are uncommon in the knees, but tendinitis can stop the strongest runner in their tracks. Only run through a potential bout of tendinitis if it loosens up on the run.
Hamstrings and quadriceps. Alarm level: 3 out of 10 Soft-tissue injuries in the big-muscle groups can usually heal rapidly if given a few days. However, if the pain feels deep, the alarm level skyrockets. Deep pain in the thigh could be indicative of a femoral stress fracture or reaction.
Hips and Glutes. Alarm level: 9 out of 10 All running stems from the hips, hip mobility and drive from the glutes, so you need to be extra careful with any unusual feeling in the area. It could be anything from IT band tendinitis to a torn labrum—no matter what it is, running is not effective with hurting hips, so don’t run through it.
Low back. Alarm level: 4 out of 10 Low-back pain is an unfortunate reality of a bipedal existence for many people. However, if the pain feels abnormal, it can be indicative of serious ailments like SI-joint dysfunction or a sacral stress fracture. Err on the side of caution.