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How To Prevent Running Injuries In Adolescent Athletes

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Running is a popular and easily accessible sport for adolescents, offering numerous physical and mental health benefits.

Across the world, participation rates in running among preadolescents and adolescents reach as high as 40%.

Within the United States, running is recorded as the second most prevalent physical pursuit for both girls aged 12 to 15 years (at 34.9%) and boys within the same age group (at 33.5%).

However, like any physical activity, running carries the risk of injury, especially for young runners who are going through a period characterized by profound physiological transformations.

To be able to prevent running injuries in adolescent athletes is crucial to ensure their long-term health, participation, performance, and, most importantly, enjoyment of the sport.

In this article, we will explore the various causes of running injuries in adolescents and provide practical strategies to help prevent them.

We’ll look at:

  • Why Are Adolescent Athletes At Risk Of Injury?
  • 6 Proven Ways To Prevent Running Injuries In Adolescent Runners
  • 6 Common Running Injuries And How To Treat Them

Let’s jump into it!

Young runners.

Why are adolescent athletes at risk of injury?

Adolescence is a period marked by rapid growth and development; I vividly recall growing by a foot in a year, thanks to hearty meals and late-morning, or more accurately, midday slumbers.

This accelerated growth phase significantly contributes to the heightened vulnerability of young runners to injuries. The bones, muscles, tendons, and ligaments are all in a state of flux, rendering them more susceptible to specific types of injuries.

Peak bone mass accumulation typically occurs in early adulthood and is influenced by biomechanical stressors on the bones, as well as other health-related factors.

During adolescence, growth plates, which are cartilaginous areas at the ends of long bones facilitating growth, are notably weaker and more prone to injury compared to the surrounding bone tissue.

Another concern during adolescence lies in the pronounced imbalance in the growth timeline between tendon and muscle properties.

Tendons are responsible for load transmission between muscles and bones and play a crucial role in movement.

Due to muscle development progressing at a faster pace, there can be a potential mismatch in tendon and muscle strength, which may account for the prevalence of overuse tendinopathy in young athletes.

Young runners in a race.

6 Proven Ways To Prevent Running Injuries In Adolescent Runners

#1: Training Methodology

Longevity is key, and improvements take time; a training plan should reflect that.

When you catch the running bug or have a sports competition coming up, the temptation to push full-throttle can be strong. However, real progress takes time and requires a progressive approach to running intensity and volume.

Think of it as laying a sturdy foundation for a house. It takes time to build strength and conditioning in your muscles; you must proceed thoughtfully and patiently.

Brick by brick, you can incrementally increase the speed, distance, and intensity of your runs as time unfolds.

Imagine trying to run a marathon without any prior training. Your muscles would find themselves ill-prepared; why would they be ready had we not provided them with the stimulus to adapt to over time?

This includes participating in an active pre-season!

So, my recommendation is to embrace patience and welcome the gradual progression in your journey to bolster strength through your running training plan.

A person swimming laps.

#2: Crosstraining

As a young runner, you should try to participate in multiple sporting disciplines. Not only because they are fun but also because adolescents who specialize in a single sport early on are at a higher risk of sports-related injuries.

This heightened risk is partially attributed to the consistent repetition of similar movement patterns that put undue stress on developing tissues.

Incorporating cross-training and different sporting disciplines into your routine is beneficial for several compelling reasons.

Engaging in activities like cycling, swimming, the gym, or whichever sport you like best can help to offer low-impact and varied workouts that promote cardiovascular fitness without placing excessive stress on muscles that are at risk of being overused.

Cross-training also serves as an excellent strategy for active recovery.

Engaging in low-impact exercises through cross-training helps stimulate blood circulation, facilitating the delivery of vital nutrients and oxygen to injured tissues, further reducing the risk of injury in adolescent runners.

Teens lifting weights.

#3: Strength Training

For adult runners, there is strong evidence that lower extremity muscle strength is generally regarded as an important component in reducing running injury rates. That said, there is a lack of high-quality studies looking at adolescent runners in particular.

Nevertheless, there are injury prevention programs that incorporate components of high-intensity neuromuscular training, jumping, plyometrics, and balance training that have proven effective in lowering the incidence of sports-related injuries in young athletes.

By incorporating a thoughtfully designed strength and conditioning regimen, you can bolster your body’s resilience and decrease the risk of future injuries.

Resistance training plays a pivotal role in strengthening muscles and their connecting tissues, thereby increasing joint stability and reducing the chances of muscle and joint injuries.

It’s crucial to start with weights that are comfortable for you.

Seeking guidance from a qualified physical therapist or trainer is advisable; they can provide exercises specifically targeting the injured muscles while ensuring proper form and technique.

Runners on a track.

As your body adapts and grows stronger, its ability to handle physical stress improves. This heightened load tolerance allows you to push your limits with reduced risk of inflammation and subsequent discomfort.

Moreover, strength training can help address muscle imbalances through targeted exercises, alleviating any associated discomfort.

It’s important to note that exercise intensity should be adjusted as your strength progresses.

Remember, a safe and effective strength training program hinges on gradual progression and paying close attention to your body’s signals.

Strength training is particularly important for the young runner due to the aforementioned risk of developing tendinopathies. Strength training can provide an effective and safe environment for tendons to get larger and stronger.

A close-up of a teen asleep.

#4: Sleep

Research has long underscored the critical importance of sufficient sleep in mitigating injury and averting overtraining syndrome, particularly pertinent for young runners striving to stay injury-free.

Establishing a consistent sleep schedule, creating a sleep-conducive environment, and limiting caffeine and screen time close to bedtime are all strategies that may help adolescents reach the recommended 8 to 10 hours of sleep per night.

Sleep serves as a pivotal window for our bodies to rejuvenate. Throughout the sleep cycle, the body engages in a multitude of essential processes geared toward the repair and fortification of muscles.

Sleep’s significance in recovery is exemplified through key mechanisms:

  1. Muscle Protein Synthesis: During sleep, the body actively orchestrates the synthesis of new muscle proteins, orchestrating the mending and reinforcement of impaired muscle fibers.
  2. Growth Hormone Release: Sleep prompts the release of growth hormone (GH), which not only facilitates the restoration of muscle tissue but also initiates the development of new muscle cells, which holds particular relevance for young athletes who are going through a period of excessive growth.
A person stretching to prevent running injuries.

#5: Warm-up

Warming up serves several benefits, including increased muscle temperature, improved blood circulation, and activation of the nervous system.

In particular, warming up helps reduce the rate of injury in adolescent runners.

One study looked to assess the impact of a comprehensive warm-up regimen on a cohort of 1892 female soccer players aged 13 to 17.

The results were encouraging, revealing that participants in training groups that incorporated this warm-up routine experienced a notable decrease in the likelihood of injury, particularly concerning severe and overuse injuries.

#6: Adequate Nutrition

If you are exercising a lot while your body is going through a period of rapid growth and transformation, the likelihood is that you’ll have higher requirements for healthy, nutritious, calorie-dense foods.

Guidelines for nutrition in young runners prioritize sustaining sufficient intake of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats to support Energy Availability (EA) essential for growth and development.

It’s crucial to meet the recommended intake of vital vitamins and minerals, especially iron, calcium, vitamin D, antioxidants, and B vitamins, for overall health.

A person holding their knee.

6 common running injuries and how to treat them

Below is a recap of some of the most common running injuries; if you are suffering from one or the other, follow the links to see a complete guide to recovery!

  1. Runner’s Knee – Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome (PFPS): Runner’s knee, or PFPS, is a prevalent overuse injury characterized by knee pain, especially during resisted muscle contractions. Symptoms include dull aches around or beneath the kneecap, discomfort when bending the knee, and swelling.
  2. Achilles Tendonitis: Achilles tendonitis is a common injury for runners, with symptoms like muscle loss, swelling, tenderness, and limited motion. It typically stems from overuse, weak calf muscles, pronation issues, or limited ankle range of motion.
  3. ITBS (Iliotibial Band Syndrome): ITBS causes knee pain on the lateral aspect of the knee, especially when palpated. It results from non-traumatic overuse, with compression of the iliotibial band during knee flexion.
  4. Shin Splints (Medial Tibial Stress Syndrome – MTSS): Shin splints cause a dull ache in the lower two-thirds of the inner tibia, mainly during or after running. Training errors, such as excessive mileage or surface changes, are the primary causes.
  5. Hamstring Strain: Hamstring strains vary in severity, leading to pain, swelling, stiffness, and mobility issues. They often result from overuse or exceeding the body’s capacity. Recovery focuses on strengthening, particularly the eccentric phase, to prevent recurrence.
  6. Tendinopathy: Tendinopathy involves muscle or tendon overuse/overstretching. Symptoms usually include pain, swelling, bruising, and limited mobility.
A teen smiling.

Final Thoughts

Running offers adolescents a readily accessible and popular sport that brings numerous physical and mental health benefits.

Enthusiasm for running must be coupled with caution as the adolescent body undergoes significant physiological changes, making injury prevention paramount.

Strategies like proper training methodologies, cross-training, strength training, sufficient sleep, effective warm-ups, and adequate nutrition play pivotal roles in safeguarding adolescent runners from injuries.

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Ben is a qualified Personal Trainer and Sports Massage Therapist with a particular interest in running performance and injury. He has spent the last 9 years working with runners at his clinic in Brighton. Ben is a keen runner and avid cyclist. Evenly splitting his time between trail running, road biking, and MTB.

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