Muscle Strain: Diagnosis, Treatment & Prevention
Prevent the strain and avoid the pain. If you get the pain, fix the strain. This article will tell you what to do.
Any prolonged physical activity is guaranteed to cause injury at some point, with the likelihood increasing the longer you engage in that activity. As a full body exercise with full body engagement, running is especially likely to result in muscle strain over time. There are many ways to become injured when running and feel muscle strain: some ways due to negligence, some to excessive activity, and some due to random factors that are no fault of your own. These injuries can affect many different parts of your body and can range from mild to severe to potentially life-threatening in rare cases. A muscle strain is not a life-threatening injury, fortunately. However, it is an extremely inconvenient one, causing pain and a loss of mobility in most cases. The possible muscles that can be prone to muscle strain when running are quite a few, as running is an exercise that incorporates many muscles. This article covers diagnosis, treatment, and prevention options with credible information sources cowritten by Eddy Mihai and curated by Diana Rangaves, PharmD. Rph. However, there are some common tips for muscle strain you can keep in mind when running that can help you avoid this condition when possible. Additionally, there are some methods of treatment that can help manage the symptoms when they develop, making recovery easier and faster.
What is a muscle strain?
It is is a catch-all term for a condition that can affect any muscle in the body. It is a condition where the muscles are stretched out of their normal shape. In severe cases, this pulling can result in tearing of the tissue, which causes pain and, in some cases, partial or complete loss of mobility. When running, the primary muscles affected are located in the groin, quadriceps, calves, and hamstrings, although essentially every group of muscles in the lower half of your body are susceptible when running.
Grades of Severity in Muscle Strain
Depending on the severity of your injury, they are commonly grouped into three grades. As the number increases, the severity increases, as do the methods of treatment and required recovery time.
- Grade 1 injuries involve minor pain and tearing. The muscle strain affected still retain their full strength.
- Grade 2 injuries are more painful, with greater tearing. In this stage, bruises and swelling commonly occur, and some strength may be diminished.
- Grade 3 injuries are the most severe, usually indicated a full tear of the affected muscle. Extreme pain and major loss of mobility occur, and bulges or dents can be seen on the surface.
The primary symptoms are a pain in the affected area. This pain usually intensifies when the muscle is moved, or when weight is distributed to the respective part of your body. The affected muscle will become weaker, and mobility may be limited either due to pain or muscle failure. Other observable symptoms include bruises on the skin and swelling. In the cases of increasing severity, some symptoms are amplified, such as pain, soreness, limited movement and weakening of the muscle. In addition, muscle strain is likely to occur if the is severe enough, such as in the case of major tearing.
The symptoms of muscle strain include:
- Popping or snapping
- Limited mobility
- Decreased strength
- Complete loss of muscle use
The most likely cause is the overuse of the muscle in question. If you run for long periods of time for weeks in a row without adequate resting time, this is the most likely culprit. Another primary cause is inadequate flexibility in the affected muscle. This can be caused by long periods of inactivity, or improper stretching before running.
The main causes of a muscle strain are:
- Poor stretching
- Weak muscles
- Prolonged inactivity
- Prior injury
Inadequate diet is another potential cause as well as many other potential running injuries. A diet insufficient in calories, amino acids, protein or iron can cause your muscles to become weaker. Weak muscles are more prone to injury as they can’t hold as much weight, and their flexibility and range of motion are reduced.
Dietary Concerns that Contribute:
- Lack of iron
- Lack of protein
- Lack of water
- Lack of fiber
- Inadequate caloric intake
- Excessive sugar
- Excessive saturated fats
Based on the lists of causes outlined above, potential risk factors are self-explanatory. Athletes training excessively are put at high risk, especially if they train for long periods of time without resting. Casual runners are also at risk if they are just starting an intense running regimen, as their muscles may not be strong enough to handle the high level of activity. This is exacerbated if they don’t stretch properly before running, or if they have a poor diet. Women are especially at risk, as iron deficiency is more common for females. This is due to a few factors, with the most notable being menstruation.
Individuals at Risk of facing muscle strain:
- Excessively training athletes
- Unprepared casual runners
- Individuals with a poor diet
- Individuals with prior injury
- Iron-deficient individuals
- Pregnant or menstruating women
Sometimes, it may feel like you’re experiencing muscle strain when you aren’t. Some specific running injuries feel similar and have similar symptoms. It’s important to rule out the following injuries since the methods of treatment are different for each one. Failure to accurately diagnose your injury will result in wasted time and money, and can even worsen the condition.
- Stress Fracture: If you experience pain, swelling, bruising and noticeable bulges or dents, you may be experiencing a stress fracture. This is a condition that affects the bones in your body, not the muscles. Although some of the causes and risk factors are similar between the two, treatment is entirely different. The best way to differentiate between the two is to observe where the pain is located, and if you still have a full range of motion. X-rays may also be required to get an accurate diagnosis.
- Runner’s Knee: If the pain is felt near your knee, it could be caused by patellofemoral pain syndrome or runner’s knee. This is a more complicated injury that affects the joints, tendons, sockets, and bones found in your knees. It can be caused by muscle imbalances, poor diet, inadequate stretching, and excessive activity, but treatment is much different. To differentiate runner’s knee from a strain in your quads or hamstrings, try and locate the direct source of the pain. If it is felt in the back of your knee, it’s probably muscle strain, but the front of the knee is usually patellofemoral pain syndrome.
- Achilles Tendonitis: Another injury located close to a commonly affected area is Achilles tendonitis. This can be confused with a calf strain, as the affected area is very close and the two share symptoms. However, Achilles tendonitis affects a specific band of tissue below the calf, closer to the heel of your foot. If your pain comes with swelling higher up the back of your foot, closer to the knee, it could be calf or hamstring strain. If the pain is closer to your heel and you do not experience any muscle spasms, the culprit is most likely Achilles tendonitis.
If you believe you are experiencing this condition, the first course of action is to get a diagnosis from a medical professional. This will help you definitively rule out any false positives, and it can help determine the severity of your injury. Initial tests involve a basic interview process where the doctor can identify the symptoms you are experiencing, followed by some light touching of the affected area to determine pain levels and swelling. If further testing is required, your doctor may recommend X-rays or MRI scans to further analyze the affected area.
Diagnosing muscle strain:
These methods are ordered in the sequence that a doctor will usually practice them in.
- Interview: Discuss symptoms with the patient
- Physical Examination: Gently touch affected an area, asking the patient about levels of pain
- X-Rays: Examine affected area with X-ray imaging devices
- MRI: Use magnetic resonance imaging to further study affected the area.
How Do You Treat a Muscle Strain?
Once you have determined without a doubt that you are experiencing this condition the next step is to treat your injury. There are many general treatment methods you can use that will work for whatever part of the body you experience muscle strain in. However, there are also some targeted treatment methods you can use to treat are in specific parts of the body.
These methods will work for treating any part of the body. More specific methods for treating different areas are outlined further below.
This is an acronym for Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation. It is commonly recommended as the first course of action when dealing with an athletic injury. In minor cases with minimal or no tearing, applying the RICE protocol can effectively treat the injury without trying any other methods.
- Rest: A period of inactivity will give your muscles a chance to recover naturally. The human body is very good at recovering from injuries such as torn muscles; in fact, it’s a key component in strength training and bodybuilding to intentionally damage your muscles so they can recover even stronger.
- Ice: Applying an ice pack to the affected area will serve a few purposes. First, the cold will numb the part of your body causing any pain to fade. Second, the shrinking effect of cold to a swollen body part will reduce any swelling. When applying ice, the general rule is to apply it for 20 minutes every hour.
- Compression: After resting the affected body part and applying ice, the next step is to apply compression. This means applying a compression sleeve or KT tape; to find more information on KT tape, look below for instructions on applying it to different areas of the body. Compression will further reduce swelling, and ensure the muscles don’t overextend when used.
- Elevation: The last step in the process is to raise the affected body part above the rest of your body. This step may be harder for specific injuries, but if it is located on one of your legs, lying on a bed and propping up the affected leg with a pillow is the best method. Elevation will prevent blood from pooling in the injured area, preventing swelling and reducing pain.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are medications that help reduce swelling and pain. These can be purchased over the counter, without a prescription. The active ingredients found in NSAIDs have specific names, but they are usually found in a variety of medications that provide pain relief and allergy treatment.
- Tiaprofenic Acid
- Mefenamic Acid
These anti-inflammatory medicines are much more powerful, as they contain steroids. In cases of Grade 3, these may be required for treatment and will need to be prescribed to you by a doctor. The corticosteroids found in these medications are highly effective at recovering torn muscle and speeding up recovery, as one study shows.
In addition to a wide range of health benefits, adjusting your diet to eat specific healthy foods can help bolster recovery and reduce swelling: similar effects to NSAIDs. Incorporating fish, nuts, fresh fruits and vegetables into your diet can provide these health benefits.
- Baby spinach
Some nutrients that are required by the body that can aid recovery can be found in supplements. Taking pills with these vitamins and minerals will provide your body with high doses that can’t easily be found in most foods. This way, you can reap the benefits they have on recovering from injuries without having to eat excessive amounts of food.
Essential Nutrients for Recovery Found in Supplements:
- Vitamin A prevents inflammation and boosts collagen production
- Vitamin C prevents oxidation and boosts the immune system
- Glucosamine prevents inflammation and boosts muscle health
- Turmeric prevents inflammation and reduces pain
- Zinc boosts the immune system and aids in muscle recovery
- Iron promotes blood flow and red blood cell capacity
Out of all of these essential vitamins and minerals, the most important one to incorporate into your diet is iron. Iron provides many health benefits to the human body, and a deficiency in it is a major risk factory to repeat occurrences.
These treatment methods are meant for specific areas of the body. Some will apply to multiple parts, such as KT tape and strengthening exercises, but the specifics will vary depending on the muscle group affected.
The quadriceps, or quads, are one of the largest muscle groups in the body. They are made up of four different tendons, which is where its name is derived. Quads are responsible for hip and knee movement and bear a great deal of weight from your body. They are located in the upper part of your leg, in the front part of your thigh.
As scientific studies have shown, immediately limiting the movement of the leg affected by a muscle strain in the quads can shorten recovery time. This is done by bending the knee of the leg at a 120-degree angle and holding it in place with wrapping or a brace. While this severely limits mobility and reduces flexibility, it can provide much quicker relief if done quickly after the injury occurs.
Kinesio tape, or KT Tape, provides compression and support for strained quads. It can also allow you to continue using the muscle in question if you are experiencing Grade 1 cases of muscle strain. Grade 2 cases may be able to function with the aid of KT tape, but you will most likely need to pair it with other recovery methods.
See some great options here: (Kinesiology Tape)
Applying KT Tape to Quads, Step by Step:
- Apply some stretch to your quad muscle. This can be done while seated, by leaning back slightly and hooking your foot around the leg of a chair or table.
- Take one piece of KT Tape and place the edge on the inside of your leg, slightly above your kneecap. This part of the muscle is called the Vastus Medius.
- With a small amount of tension in the piece of tape, apply the rest of the tape piece up to your thigh, stopping just below your pelvis.
- Take another piece of KT Tape and place the edge on the outside of your leg above the kneecap. This section is called the Vastus Lateralis.
- With a small amount of tension, apply the rest of the tape piece up to your outer thigh, stopping below your hip.
To assist your quad muscles in recovering, some strengthening exercises may be required. These will allow you to regain any lost strength from the injury, as well as retraining the quadriceps in bearing weight. Some of these exercises may require a mat or resistance band to perform. You may feel some soreness when doing these exercises correctly but stop immediately if you feel a sharp pain.
- Static Contractions: Without moving your legs at all, flex your quad muscles so they contract. Hold this contraction for ten seconds, then release and rest for five seconds. Repeat ten times for one set, and perform two to three sets a day.
- Leg Raises: Lie flat on a mat or rug. Bend the knee of one leg so that your foot is flat on the ground, and lie the other leg straight on the ground. Slowly lift the straightened leg up to a foot off the ground at a 45-degree angle. Hold for five seconds, then lower it back to the floor. Repeat this movement ten to twelve times for each leg.
- Knee Extensions: While sitting in a chair, tie a resistance band around your foot with the other end attached to a leg of the chair. Slowly raise the foot attached to the band until your knee is straight, or as far as you comfortably can. Hold this position for five seconds, then return to the starting position. Perform two sets of ten reps for each leg.
- Wall Slides: Also known as skateboard squats, these are a version of squats that apply less pressure to your back. Stand straight with your back against the wall. Slowly lower your body by bending your knees, sliding your back down the wall. Stop moving once your legs are bent 45 degrees. Hold this position for five seconds, then slowly raise your legs back up to the starting position. Repeat ten times for a set, and perform two to three sets a day.
- Lunges: Stand in a wide stance, feet shoulder-width apart. Place one leg behind your body, bending your back leg until your knee is about to touch the ground, and your front knee is bent at a 90-degree angle. Hold for a few seconds, then return to the starting position. Do two sets of ten reps with each leg. For additional difficulty, try holding weights in your hands during the movement.
- Squats: The movement involved in this exercise is similar to wall slides, but requires you to balance as well as engage your back muscles. In a wide stance with your feet shoulder-width apart, slowly lower your body by bending your legs while keeping your back straight and your butt sticking out. Lower your body until your butt is below your knees, or as far as you can comfortably. Raise your body back up to the starting position, moving slowly to maintain control. Repeat this movement five times for a set, doing two to three sets a day. For additional difficulty, hold free weights in your hands or place a weighted barbell on your back while performing this exercise.
In particularly severe cases involving your quads, such as Grade 3, comprises a complete rupture of the muscle, surgery may be required. Surgical procedures for treating the severe quad condition may involve stitching muscle to bone, and artificially lengthening tendons. These surgeries are performed under anesthetic, and rehabilitation can take up to eight weeks, with full functionality being restored in nine to twelve months.
The hamstrings are large muscles located on the back of your upper legs. They are on the opposite side of your thighs to your quads and span from your butt to your upper calves. Hamstrings are important for knee flexion and hip extension, so experiencing the condition in one or both can result in tremendous difficulty running.
Compression tape such as KT tape can be applied in order to relieve pain and prevent swelling or displacement in the hamstrings. You may be able to resume running with some KT tape, rest and ice as per the RICE protocol, but only in minor cases.
Applying KT Tape to Hamstrings, Step by Step:
- Flex the hamstring by placing the target leg behind you and bending your upper body forward, using a chair or table to stabilize. You may need a partner to apply the KT tape in this position.
- Place the end of one piece of tape on the back of your leg, just above the back of your knee. It should be close to the inside of your thigh.
- Applying a slight stretch, lay the rest of this piece of tape up the back of your thigh, stopping at the base of your butt.
- Take the second piece of tape and apply one end next to the first piece, above the knee on the back of your leg. This piece should be closer to the outside of your thigh, near the hip.
- With a small amount of stretch, place the rest of the tape along the back of your thigh, ending just below the side of your butt, near the hip.
During the recovery process, loss of strength and mobility may occur over an extended rest period. To prevent this and aid in recovery, perform some light strengthening exercises. These are simple exercises that isolate the hamstring and may require additional materials such as a mat or resistance band. Some soreness is to be expected when performing strengthening exercises but stop immediately if you experience sharp pain.
- Static Contractions: While seated, bend the knee of your target leg at a 45-degree angle. Contract your hamstring by pushing your heel into the floor. Hold for five seconds, then release. Repeat ten times for a set.
- Standing Knee-Flex: Stand upright, balancing your weight on one leg. Bend the knee of your free leg so that your foot curls behind you while still standing upright. Hold for a second or two, then lower your foot back to the starting position. Perform three sets of ten reps for each leg.
- Pelvic Bridges: Lie on your back on a mat or rug. Keep your arms and back flat on the ground, and your knees bent so that your feet are flat as well. Using your pelvic muscles, lift your torso off the ground until your body forms a straight line from your knees to your shoulders. Hold for a few seconds, then slowly lower your body until you return to the starting position. Perform two sets of ten reps.
- Hamstring Gravity Catches: Lie flat on your stomach on a mat or rug. Lift one foot by bending your knee. Then, release tension in your leg, letting your foot start to drop. ‘Catch’ your foot before it hits the ground by flexing your hamstring muscle, then slowly lift it back to the starting position. Perform one set of ten reps.
- Resistance Hamstring Curls: Lie flat on your stomach on a mat or rug, with one end of a resistance band wrapped around your foot and the other wrapped around a door or chair. Bend the knee of your leg with the resistance band wrapped around it, so your foot lifts up in the air. Hold for a few seconds, then slowly return to the starting position. Perform two sets of ten reps with each leg.
- Nordic Curls: This is an advanced exercise that incorporates your full body weight, so make sure your doctor or other medical professional says you are strong enough to attempt this exercise. Kneel on a mat or rug, keeping your upper body straight. Use weights or a partner to pin your lower legs to the ground. Slowly bend your upper body forward using your hamstrings. You may want to perform this exercise near a wall so that you can push off it with your hands to return to the starting position, but a more advanced technique is to raise yourself back to the starting position with just your hamstrings. Perform one set of ten reps.
In Grade 1 or 2 cases of hamstring muscle strain, different forms of massage treatment can be applied to treat the injury. These include simple massage exercises done at home with a foam roller, massage therapy with the aid of a physical therapist, or intensive muscle therapy performed at a clinic. In the case of one soccer player that suffered from hamstring muscle strain, aggressive massage treatment reduced his total recovery time by around 50%.
For Grade 3 cases, particularly in cases where the muscle experiences a complete tear, surgery may be necessary. Surgical procedures for hamstring tendon rupture involve incisions made near the butt and thigh, moving gluteus muscle tissue to access upper thigh muscle, and applying stitches to the affected tendon in order to attach it to bone or other tendons. Scar tissue may be removed as well before closing the incision. A hip brace and crutches may be required up to six weeks after the procedure, with a full range of motion being capable after six to twelve months of recovery.
Your calves are the muscles located on the back of your lower leg. They start just below the back of your knee, below the hamstring, and end above the heel of your foot, above the Achilles tendon. They bear weight from the rest of your body and are necessary for proper foot movement when running. Muscle strain in the calves are common running injuries, that can result in pain and limited mobility.
In addition to compression sleeves, Kinesio tape can be applied to the calf experiencing this injury to soothe pain and prevent displacement due to swelling, spasms or tearing. In the case of tearing, such as with Grade 3 cases, this likely won’t allow you to continue running, but less severe cases can often benefit enough from KT tape that regular exercise can resume.
Applying KT Tape to Calves, Step by Step:
- Apply some flexion to the calf by standing in a lunge position, with the target leg placed behind your body. You may need to support yourself with a chair or table for balance, and a partner will likely be required to apply the tape.
- Place the end of one piece of tape at a slightly diagonal angle, on the inside of your ankle near the Achilles tendon.
- Applying a small amount of tension, lay the rest of the tape piece along the inside of the calf, stopping a few inches below the knee.
- Taking another strip of tape, place the end over part of the first piece, angled diagonally toward the outside of the calf.
- With slight tension, lay the rest of this piece up to the outside of your calf, stopping below the knee in a similar position to the first piece.
In minor cases, the pain can be alleviated with the use of orthotics. Heel pads inserted in your shoes will reduce the angle of flexion in your calves, allowing you to walk or run while recovering. However, this fix only helps Grade 1 cases and may result in a loss of flexibility in your calves if worn over a long period of time.
Another common orthotic for use when treating calf muscle strain is a CAM walker. The CAM is an acronym for Controlled Ankle Movement, and it is also sometimes referred to as a walker boot. These orthotic devices limit ankle movement when walking, preventing additional strain or tearing as a result of flexing the calf muscle too far. Running won’t be possible in a CAM walker, but walking will be.
See more here: (CAM Walkers)
The exercises listed below are designed to target the calves, helping to restore any strength that may be lost during recovery from muscle strain. In addition, performing these exercises can help prevent muscle strain from developing in the future, but only in some cases. Additional materials that may be required for this exercise are a mat or small step. Don’t be alarmed if you experience some soreness from these exercises, but exercise caution and stop immediately if you feel a sharp pain.
- Seated Calf Raises: Sit on a chair with your back straight and your knees bent at a 90-degree angle. Slowly lift the heels of your feet as high as you comfortably can. Hold for a few seconds, then return to the starting position. Repeat ten times for a set, and do two to three sets a day. For extra resistance, place weights on your upper legs near the knee.
- Standing Calf Raises: Stand on a small step with your heels hanging off the edge. Slowly lower your heels, then lift them until you are standing on the tips of your toes, then return to the starting position. Repeat this exercise ten times for one set, and do two to three sets a day. For extra difficulty, try performing this exercise with one foot at a time, balancing your entire weight on it.
- Foot Pumps: Lie flat on your back on a bed or table, with your feet hanging off the edge and your toes pointed toward the ceiling. Bend your heels to point your toes away from your body, as far as you comfortably can, and then point them toward your body as far as you comfortably can. Repeat this movement for one minute straight. Do this two to three times a day.
- Calf Step Lunges: This exercise is more advanced, so you should check with your doctor or physical therapist before attempting it. Start by standing on a small step with your heels hanging off the end, similar to the starting position for standing calf raises. Then, place one foot behind your body in a lunge position. Using the foot in front of you as support, lift your back foot and return it to the starting position. Perform a set of ten with each foot, two to three times a day.
Usually only required in the most severe cases of calf muscle strain, surgery can be performed as a treatment for this condition. Usually, this is done for Grade 3, where the muscle is completely torn or separated from the bone. After performing the surgical procedure, a cast is required for a few months; however, the entire procedure is much less intense than other strain-related surgeries, and recovery is much faster.
The adductor muscles that connect your inner thighs and pelvis can become injured or torn in cases of groin muscle groupings. The groin muscles are mainly responsible for hip flexibility, so a notable indication is when pain can be felt in the inner thigh while moving your hips.
As a compression sleeve is difficult to properly, KT tape works as a more convenient method of applying compression to the affected area, as per the RICE protocol. Consider additional treatment methods, if pain persists after a few weeks of this treatment, or if you are dealing with a condition above Grade 1 severity.
Applying KT Tape to Groin, Step by Step:
- Flex the groin muscle by spreading your legs apart. One can rest in front of you, while the leg on the side of your body that is experiencing the pain should be extended to the side.
- Take the end of one piece of tape and place it on the inside of your thigh, closer to the back of your upper leg.
- Lay the rest of the tape along your inner thigh with slight tension, stopping at the pelvis.
- Apply another piece of tape above the first, on the inner thigh closer to the front of the knee. Lay the piece in a similar style as the first, with the same amount of tension.
Transcutaneous electric nerve stimulation is a popular and effective method of treating pain in the body. Its effectiveness as a pain reliever has been proven in a scientific study. A TENS machine can be used to great effect on a groin affected by muscle grouping since the electrical stimulation will affect the nerves sending pain signals. Additionally, the nerve stimulation will cause the attached muscles to start flexing, helping to prevent a loss of strength or flexibility from the injury.
See More Here: (TENS Electric)
In order to restore your groin muscles to their previous strength after an injury, you can perform some targeted exercises. These exercises may require some additional materials, such as a mat, resistance band, or small exercise ball. Remember to stop immediately if you experience sharp pain while performing these exercises; however, some soreness can be expected.
- Side Leg Raises: Lie on your side, using a mat or rug. Keeping the rest of your body straight, lift your top leg in the air as far as you comfortably can. Hold this position for five seconds, then slowly lower it to the starting position. Repeat two sets of ten reps for each leg.
- Short Adductor Squeezes: Lie on your back using a rug or mat. Keep your feet, pelvis and back flat on the ground by bending your knees at an angle. Place an exercise ball between your knees and squeeze it as tight as you comfortably can for five seconds. Release and rest for a few seconds, then squeeze again. Perform two sets of three reps.
- Standing Resistance Swings: Tie one end of a resistance band around your foot and the other around a doorway. Put the weight of your body on the leg that isn’t wrapped around the resistance band. Lift the leg attached to the band in front of your body, applying tension. Then, swing the leg so that it crosses over your other leg. Hold for a few seconds, then slowly return to the starting position. Perform two sets of ten reps for each leg.
- Gravity Hip Adductions: Lay down on your side using a rug or mat, propping up one leg with a chair. Lift the leg that isn’t resting on the chair off the mat, stopping just below your other foot. Hold for a few seconds, then slowly lower your leg back to the ground. Perform two sets of ten reps for each leg.
Surgical treatment for groin strain is rare but can be necessary in extreme cases. This is usually reserved for Grade 3 cases of strain, or the development of a hernia. In a surgical procedure for treating muscle strain in the groin, an incision is made near the thigh and either the tendon is detached and re-attached to the bone, or a protective mesh is placed in the area.
How Do You Prevent Muscle Strains?
After you’ve successfully treated your muscle strain, precautions should be made to avoid future injuries. However, before you try any of the prevention methods listed below, the most effective preventative measure you can take is to eliminate whatever risk factors contributed to your muscle strain in the first place. Identifying the root cause of your injury is important; it can be equated to taking care of a weed infestation in a garden. If you only handle the surface level problems, the root cause will still remain and cause trouble. Only when you take care of the root cause, much like pulling weeds out by the roots, can you prevent any more injuries from developing?
One of the biggest risk factors for not the only muscle strain, but many potential running injuries, is a lack of proper hydration. Without the necessary amount of fluid, the muscles in your body are prone to microtears and post-exercise soreness, as some studies have proven. The commonly held belief is that the human body needs eight cups of water a day in order to function, but this is simply an urban legend; there is absolutely no scientific evidence proving this value as the required amount. The truth is that each runner will have different needs for hydration, depending on how long they run and how much they sweat. However, a good rule of thumb is to drink only as much fluid as your body loses, which can be tracked by weighing yourself before and after a run.
If the main reason that you are running is for cardiovascular health, and not training for a marathon or other event related to running, changing up your exercise routine can help prevent injury. Implementing alternative cardiovascular exercises such as swimming, biking, or elliptical training can limit injury from overuse. Cross-training exercises still use most of your body and can raise your heart rate, but the variety they offer can help stave off harm from repetitive movements.
Cross Training Alternatives to Running:
- Elliptical training
- Stair climbing
- Rock climbing
- Weight training
Since many cases of muscle strain are due to overextending the muscles while running, a highly effective method of preventing the injury in the first place is to stretch regularly. Stretching before a workout can provide a great warm-up for your muscles, preventing many other potential injuries. In addition, performing targeted stretches for each muscle group can assist in the healing process when first experiencing symptoms, so the benefits are twofold. These stretches may require additional materials, such as a mar or resistance band. You may experience some soreness when performing these stretches but stop immediately if you feel a sharp pain.
Quadriceps Stretches to Prevent:
- Standing Stretch: While standing upright, bend one leg backward so your foot is touching your butt. Grab the toes of your foot with one hand and apply tension. Hold for thirty seconds, then release. Switch feet and perform the same exercise for another thirty seconds.
- Kneeling Stretch: Kneel on one leg so that both of your knees are bent at a 90-degree angle and one leg is resting flat on the floor. Keeping your back and pelvis straight, slowly bend forward so your front knee bends inward and your back knee bends outward. Switch legs and repeat the exercise for another thirty seconds.
- Prone Stretch: Lay flat on your back using a rug or mat. Grad the knee of one leg with your hands and pull it toward your torso, so your thigh touches your chest. Hold this position for thirty seconds, then release. Repeat the movement with your other leg, holding for another thirty seconds.
Hamstring Stretches to Prevent:
- Standing Stretch: While standing upright, rest one foot on a table or chair in front of you. Lean your upper body forward and grab the foot or thigh of your front leg: whichever you can reach. Hold for twenty seconds, then release. Repeat with the other leg.
- Seated Stretch: Sit on a mat or rug with your back upright. Lay one leg out in front of your body and one on your side, with the knee of the side leg, bent so that your foot is near your groin. Lean your torso forward and grab the toes or thigh of the front leg: whichever you can reach. Hold for twenty seconds, then release. Repeat with the other leg.
- Prone Stretch: Lie on your back using a rug or mat. Lift one leg straight up in the air, at a 90-degree angle to the rest of your body. Grab the thigh of your upright leg with both hands, and pull it toward your upper body until you feel the tension. Hold for twenty seconds, then return to the starting position. Repeat the movement with your other leg.
Calf Stretches to Prevent:
- Wall Stretch: Stand up facing a wall. Place both your hands against the wall, then move one leg behind you and one slightly in front with the knee bent, forming a lunge position. You should feel some tension in the back of your foot on the leg that is behind you. Hold this position for twenty seconds, then release. Repeat the movement with your other foot.
- Curb Stretch: Stand next to a curb or small step. Place the toes of one foot on the curb and apply pressure, causing your foot to bend and creating tension in the back of your foot. Hold this position for twenty seconds, then release. Repeat the movement with your other foot.
- Seated Resistance Stretch: Sit on a mat or rug, with one leg lying straight in front of you and the other to your side, bent so that your foot is near your groin. This position should be identical to the seated hamstring stretch outlined above. Loop a resistance band around the arch of your front foot, holding the other ends of the band with your hands. Pull on the ends of the band while keeping your leg straight, causing your foot to bend and tension to gather in the back of your leg. Hold for twenty seconds, then release and repeat the movement with your other foot.
Groin Stretches to Prevent:
- Standing Stretch: Stand at a wide angle, with your feet more than shoulder-width apart. Distribute your weight to one leg by shifting your torso toward it and bending the knee. Your other leg should straighten out, and you will feel a tension in your pelvic region. Hold this position for ten seconds, then shift your weight to the other leg for another ten seconds.
- Seated Stretch: Sit on a mat or rug, with both of your legs bent at the knee to your sides so your feet meet in the middle. Grab both your feet with your hands and lean forward as far as you comfortably can. Hold this stretch for thirty seconds, then release. Perform this stretch three times a day.
As far as running injuries go, muscle strain is one of the milder ones. In the majority of cases, the pain and soreness felt will go away on their own in a few weeks, and can even end up strengthening the affected muscles. However, the condition can also be a clear indicator that you are doing something wrong in your exercise routine. If left untreated, this can lead to much more serious injury, such as severe tearing or bone damage. For these reasons, it is important that you properly identify cases, take steps to treat it as it occurs, and practice preventative measures in order to keep it from occurring in the future.
Co-written by Eddy Mihai
Curated by Diana Rangaves, PharmD. Rph
The following is a list of sources cited in this article. Most of these sources are pulled from scientific studies or articles written by medical professionals and physical therapists. However, this informative article should not be taken as professional medical advice. Always talk to a doctor if you experience a muscle strain or any other running injury.
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