How To Prepare Your Joints For A Marathon

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Marathons are a great achievement. They have risen in popularity over the years, and have become a regular recreational activity for many people trying to stay fit and active. Runners in Singapore join an average of 4 to 6 marathons a year. The annual Standard Chartered’s Singapore Marathon, which started in 1982, now attracts roughly 60,000 runners from around the region.

Running has various health benefits, like reducing the risk of cardiovascular diseases, and helping preserve mental acuity well into old age. Done right, longitudinal studies show that running regularly can decrease your risk of osteoarthritis. Staying healthy is the number one reason most Singaporeans start running.

However, just as any sport, proper preparation is needed to reap the full benefits of running. Marathons can be very demanding on leg muscles and joints. Up to 70 percent of runners report injuries after the race. Most are due to incorrect training, footwear, or pushing too hard, too soon.

To avoid cutting your running career short, we have compiled some advice on how to start and finish each marathon strong and healthy.

You may also want to read a quick rundown on the treatment, recovery, and prevention of traumatic sports and overuse injuries.

PRE-MARATHON

Make time for more than just leg day

Running a marathon effectively is more than just having strong calves and knees. Runners can be kinder to their joints by focusing on other muscle groups. These will, in turn, take some of the brunt force off your joints, and help distribute the stress throughout your whole body come marathon day.

SEA Games gold medalist Mok Ying Ren recommends integrating cross-training with your training regimen. Personally, Ren thanks triathlon training for a lower injury rate before switching over to marathon training.

Runners are also specifically at a higher risk for a condition known as “Runner’s Knee”, a radiating pain caused by reduced knee cartilage. Marathoners can prevent Runner’s Knee through an exercise regimen that improves hip strength and flexibility. These exercises have been shown to reduce pain from Runner’s Knee.

Stress test your joints

The minimum period for conditioning should be at least 3 to 4 months, says Steven Quek, who coaches Olympians. Runners should already have tested the distance they are going to run. For instance, runners on a 21-kilometre course should have already tried to run 21 kilometres, advises Quek.

Invest in the right gear

What you wear can spell the difference between a picture perfect finish, or a trip to the emergency room. Make sure your shoes are built with proper support systems for running. Even the most expensive, most marketed “running shoes” may not actually provide adequate support.

New York-based sports medicine specialist and orthopaedic surgeon Dr. Kevin Plancher even recommends customizing shoes by switching out the inserts the shoes came with something more rigid. So it may be better to consult your doctor instead of your weekly sneakerhead newsletter for the proper type of shoes for marathons

Eat right and hydrate

Obviously, proper hydration is important for race day, as it helps regulate your body temperature, and keeps your joints well lubricated. Runners recommend drinking 16 ounces of water just before the race, and 4 to 6 ounces every 20 minutes into a race. As for what to eat, runners should stock up on food that has anti-inflammatory properties, which can help prevent joint damage. Some anti-inflammatory food types are berries, soy products, walnuts, and fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids like salmon.

DURING THE MARATHON

Keep an eye on your form

Do not hesitate to constantly check and adjust your form, especially in the middle of a run. Fatigue, especially during the last leg of the race, often causes our bodies to tense, and runners to lose posture. This increases stress and energy offloaded to already taxed joints and puts them at increased risk for developing injuries. Pain and soreness is a common indicator of improper posture. If you are feeling any tightness around your shoulders, back, or arms, check if you need to correct your form.

Listen to your body

A lot of runners come in with the mindset of never giving up until they cross the finish line. Admirable, but ultimately, a sentiment that can harm as much as inspire. Murugiah Rameshon, coach and Singapore’s fastest male marathoner, advises runners to listen to their bodies, and stop when something doesn’t feel right to prevent further injury. “A lot of people think that, ‘I don’t care, I will never give up and I’m going to complete it no matter what happens.’ But it’s OK to stop. There is always another race.”

POST-MARATHON CARE

Take a hot and cold shower

Marathons put your legs under heavy stress. After the marathon, your muscles are full of what are called “micro tears”. Micro tears are tiny tears in muscle fibers. They are also largely to thank for growing stronger. Your body repairs the micro tears to be able to withstand more damage in the future.

A shower using hot and cold water aids your body for faster recovery. Called a “contrast shower”, the oscillation between cold and hot water helps bring oxygen to your tired leg muscles and joints and can promote recovery, especially from overuse injuries.

Lastly, don’t forget to take a  break

Running can be very unkind on your joints, especially if you are a beginner with no prior experience, or are transitioning from the couch to pounding pavement. Doctors recommend taking at least two to three days of rest from exercises that stress your joints. However, don’t put off workouts entirely! Light exercise helps keep oxygen-rich blood pumping through your sore muscles, promoting faster recovery. Some runners report stiffness from dropping exercise entirely after a marathon.

In addition to having great health benefits, running marathons are an impressive feat of strength and endurance. However, as with any sport, runners should make sure to invest enough time in training and gear to avoid injuries, and preserve their joints for many more races to come.

Dr. Dutton of the Dr. Andrew Quoc Dutton Orthopaedic and Sports Clinic will be glad to answer any questions related to marathon preparations, or treatment options for running-related injuries. He is a Harvard Fellowship-trained orthopaedic surgeon with clinical interests in sports injuries, arthroscopic or keyhole surgery, and arthroscopic ligament reconstruction, among many others. 

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