Runners and sports physicians on why running has become part of most fitness regimens.

We’re living in a ready-get-set-go era. It is not surprising that running as a sport has become popular. Although our ancestors took to their heels whenever they had to resort to the flight response (as opposed to fight), civilisation and the sedentary lifestyle of subsequent periods slowed us down. Being acclimatised to speed of a different kind today, even the exercise regimen that some of us choose has picked up momentum and reflects the times that we live in

Why are people running?

The many running clubs that have sprouted — from Runners for Life to Nike Run Club, Chennai Runners, Dream Runners, Delhi Runners, Hash House Harriers (who define themselves as a drinking club with a running problem), Runner Girls International — organise regular events, keep interest levels high and facilitate sharing of notes. This has further peaked with marathons in various cities and corporate-led events, like Citizen’s Run, to raise funds for social causes.

Given all the endorphins and feel-good hormones that are released during a good exercise regimen, one tends to agree with actor, activist and entrepreneur Gul Panag who equates running to happiness. With 16 half-marathons behind her in the 18 years since she began running, her initial reluctance is now a thing of the past. “Within the first six months I was running two miles. I felt better and was a happier kid. I fared better in physical fitness tests and beat most of the boys hollow, except two: a national basketball player and a national swimmer,” she recalls.

Industrialist Arun Krishnan — who has run two major marathons (Chicago and Berlin) and is gearing up for three others (London, New York and Boston) — says, “Running is the best stress buster ever. Initially one wakes up with great reluctance and trudges grudgingly to the venue. But after the first few strides, the feeling is one of sheer exhilaration. A good run has a calming effect, which lasts for much of the day.” He should know; he has been running for 35 years now.

For Gayathre Rajam, yoga teacher, tri-athlete and entrepreneur, running with music “is like meditation. It brings a sense of inner peace. To me, running is tougher than cycling or swimming. It helps improve my fitness, maintain my weight and keeps me in a good mood.”

But there are negatives too. Dr. Nitiraj Oberoi, Consultant, Orthopaedics and Sports Surgery, Fortis Hospitals, New Delhi, says, “Runners suffer from stress fractures of the foot, shins, knee, hip and groin besides foot tendonitis, bursitis of the knee and pelvis. This causes difficulty in walking and sitting. Also there is the likelihood of aggravating existing lumbar disc problems.” Dr. Kannan Pugazhendi adds, “Running injuries are not due to a single event and require many days of repeated stress.”

Most running injuries happen due to poor conditioning, over-ambitious running schedules, bad foot positioning during impact, bad or worn out shoes and hard running surfaces. Running shoes need proper heel counter support and pronation prevention. Also one should not run on concrete surfaces. Running on a treadmill is not advised as there is a higher incidence of stress injuries.

Though proper running shoes are important some people have opted to run barefoot. Dr. Gladson Johnson, Bangalore-based sports physiotherapist who has run full marathons on bare feet, says, “You cannot make the transition overnight but have to train for at least 18-20 months as the mechanics of bare feet running are different. First practice barefoot walking, then barefoot jogging on grass, mud and hard terrains and get a feel of different surfaces. If not, there is a chance of serious injury to the ankle, foot, knee, lower back and neck. The older one is, the longer it takes to adjust. Intensive stretches (of the toes, ankles, arches, plantar fascia or connective tissue on the sole of the foot, calf muscles, shin muscles), strengthening of the core muscles around the waist will help develop a good foot. The bottom line is that the end technique of running is highly individualised since different people have different types of feet: flat feet, arch feet, pronated feet and bird feet.”

Overcoming injuries

Yoga is Gayathre’s secret. “It helps me stay injury free.” Arun Krishnan points out, “With proper training one can minimise injuries but not avoid them altogether. The probability of injury increases with age, hence it is important to pay heed to and attend to niggles before they develop into injuries.” RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation) is his mantra. “After every run I strap cold packs on my knees and other joints.”

According to Dr. Oberoi, rest is the best treatment followed by improved technique. “Physiotherapy works for tendinitis and bursitis only. Persistent pain that does not abate after 4-5 days rest and returns after every run means it is time to see the doctor. Dr. Pughazendi also warns, “Any form of chest discomfort or pain, numbness in the little finger or pain in the left arm could point to cardiac issues.”

For those tempted to sign up for a marathon, Dr. Oberoi has some advice: One needs to prepare for over 10 months. If not a marathon, try brisk walking and power walking.” Adds Dr. Johnson, “Long distance running is a mind-body game. The tougher you are, the better your chances of reaching the finish line.”

And for those taking baby steps, Gayathre Rajam says, “Start running slowly. Don’t attempt to conquer mountains on day one. Walk 10 steps and run 10 steps. Slowly increase the steps you run. Before you know it you will be able to run 10 km non-stop.”

Simple tips

Have a proper warm up and cool down routine.

Running shoes should be changed once in 6-8 months depending on mileage. Do not use running shoes as casual wear.

Do not increase running distance suddenly. If doing so give the body time to recover.

A proper cool down, aqua therapy and ice rub on sore areas immediately after the run are essential.

Have a snack, if not a meal, within one hour of the run.

Replace fluids during the run. Check weight before and after the run to how much fluid to replace (1kg = 1litre).

Do not ignore pain. Listen to what your body’s signals.

The right technique

Dr. Kannan Pugazhendi, Sports Physician at the SPARRC Institute in Chennai, Coimbatore and Hyderabad, says:

Use the full feet to run, making contact with the heel and rolling it forward to take off from the ball of the toes. The contact with the ground should produce minimum sound.

Running on the toes increases the impact loading and is essential only for sprinting.

Unnecessary movements of the neck and trunk should be avoided and shoulder movement should be minimal.

Proper warm up, stretching, avoiding sudden progression of distance and adequate recovery time are all crucial to prevent injuries.