The running community is very diverse. What was once a small-knit group of long-distance mavens when recreational running was just starting to gain traction decades ago has since expanded to include runners of all ages, genders, body types, sizes, and speeds.
With the advent of sports-specific prosthetics, recreational and competitive running is now a viable option for runners with limb loss.
A prosthetic leg for running allows individuals who were either born without some or all of a leg or who have lost some or all of a leg through an injury or illness to participate in the sport and enjoy the benefits of running and racing.
Running with a prosthetic leg comes with a unique set of challenges, above and beyond those that runners with two healthy legs already contend with.
In this article, we will discuss running on prosthetic legs, including some of the challenges of running with a prosthetic leg.
We will cover:
- What Are the Challenges of Running With a Prosthetic Leg?
- Aftercare for Runners With Prosthetic Legs
- Are Runners With Prosthetic Running Legs At an Increased Risk of Injury?
Let’s jump in!
To learn more about running on a prosthetic leg, we spoke to avid amputee runner Gina Bruce Turner, who lost her leg in a motorcycle accident in 2012. Although Turner wasn’t a runner before her accident, it was an impetus to get her into the sport, and she now races and trains year-round and can’t imagine her life not being a runner.
“I was almost 50 years old, and my only exercise at the time was going to the gym a few days a week and having fun in a Zumba class. I was not consistent or working on any real goals.
After the accident, I was motivated to get moving again and to prove to myself and anyone around me that losing my leg was not going to stop me. I walked my first ever 5K seven months after the accident. This 5K lit a fire in me to want to run a 5K.”
From there, Turner’s running career took off!
What Are the Challenges of Running With a Prosthetic Leg?
In many ways, runners who use a prosthesis to run face many of the same challenges runners with two healthy legs face, such as motivation, consistency, and pushing themselves, just to name a few.
Turner, who has been running with a prosthetic leg for about ten years, says, “At least for me, the first and biggest challenge is making myself get my leg on, get dressed, and get out the door.”
With that said, running with a prosthetic leg adds additional challenges, some of which are dependent on the type of technology used in the prosthesis.
For example, there are everyday prosthetic feet that can be attached to the prosthetic leg. These look more like normal feet.
There are also running blades, which are made from carbon fiber and have a large curve shape to them to help provide energy return and shock attenuation for safer and more efficient running.
The type of prosthesis you wear running will affect how the prosthetic leg works and feels while running.
There are many types of prosthetic feet and knees (for transfemoral amputees), so it can take time and experimentation for runners and their prosthetists (the specialists who make and fit the prostheses for patients) to find a good prosthetic leg for running.
“There are definitely differences depending on what type of foot/leg you are using. If I’m running in my everyday walking leg with a shoe on each foot, I can run (carefully) on any terrain including grass, gravel, mulch, [and] even on the beach,” explains Turner. “Running in my everyday foot is not as comfortable or as smooth, but definitely doable.”
Turner says that although this versatility in the workable terrain is a nice aspect of running on the everyday foot, she prefers running in her running blade.
“However, because there is very little sole of the blade that touches the ground and no ankle movement to compensate for terrain, it is very important to be running on a fairly smooth, solid surface,” notes Turner.
She describes a race scenario where this challenge really came into play:
“I recently ran a 10K and had not been able to check out the route prior to the race.
The road surface was very old, and it was like running on cobblestones. I had to be very careful to watch my step any time I was on this rough road and be sure to place my blade in the middle of each smooth spot. I felt like I was playing hopscotch for a good portion of the run. I made it, but it was pretty exhausting having to be so vigilant about foot placement.”
Another often overlooked added difficulty of running with a prosthetic leg is the greater core muscle engagement necessary to help you balance.
“Having a prosthetic leg, I do not have an ankle that can compensate for changes in the road, and I don’t have the lower leg muscles that also propel the body forward,” explains Turner.
“Core strength is very important to be able to hold my body strong and make sure that I don’t lose my balance or overcompensate with my sound side, causing injury to my right leg and back.”
One of the biggest challenges of running with a prosthetic leg is getting the right socket fit.
The socket refers to the part of the prosthesis that connects to the residual limb or stump.
This must be an intimate fit, or there can be rubbing, which can cause friction blisters, or the prosthetic leg might shift or cause pressure points if the socket fits poorly.
“Without a well-fitted, comfortable socket, I am not able to run without pain and injury to my short leg,” notes Turner. “Every time I go out for a run, I carry extra prosthetic socks with me in order to adjust my socket fit throughout my run if needed.”
Adding socks can help the fit if the socket feels loose, but it doesn’t come without its issues, mainly that it can become really hot and sweaty.
As all runners know, sweat and friction are the recipe for chafing and blisters, so many runners who run with a prosthesis experience very painful chafing and wounds, which can sideline training for several days until the skin heals.
“Inside the socket, your short leg is wrapped in a rubber/silicon type liner and then encased in a carbon fiber shell. If I am running further than a 5k, I know I will have to stop at least once to dry my leg,” explains Turner.
“This entails taking my prosthesis off, having a towel with me to dry my leg, then the supplies needed to put on my leg again. In a race, each stop to dry my leg will add about 3-4 minutes to my overall time.”
Aftercare for Runners With Prosthetic Legs
Turner says that regardless of the environmental temperature, running with a prosthetic leg causes a lot of sweating inside the liner and socket.
This not only requires doffing the prosthetic running leg during longer workouts—even in the cold—to dry the limb to prevent blisters and then put the prosthetic running leg back on—but also aftercare once the run is done.
“It is important to make sure that my skin is still healthy and has no blisters or red spots. I like to wash my leg and apply solutions,” shares Turner. “If I have any sores starting to develop, my go-to is tea tree oil. If possible, I like to leave my leg off for a while after a run to allow the short leg to ‘breathe’ a bit.”
Are Runners With Prosthetic Running Legs At an Increased Risk of Injury?
“Running with a prosthesis puts a lot of extra strain on the short leg—not only to the skin but also the bony prominences of the leg,” shares Turner. “The healthy leg is also at risk for injuries due to changes in your gait. It is very easy to use your healthy side as the dominant leg when running or walking.”
Turner says that another factor that isn’t always thought of is that the lack of ankle flexion to adapt to the terrain requires the healthy leg to compensate for the cambered slope of the road. Because only one leg is able to do this side to side adjustments, it can cause knee issues on the healthy leg and hip issues on the leg with the prosthesis.
Naturally, there are also changes to your running gait when using a prosthetic running leg, but the extent and nature of these alterations will depend on the type of prosthetic foot you have, knee (if applicable), running blades, and speed.
Turner says running with a running blade is smooth when you’re running at a good clip.
“However, if I am walking or just running at a slower pace, my blade does not compress as much, causing my prosthetic side to be taller than my healthy side,” she explains. “This throws off my gait and affects my lower back as well.”
Turner’s takeaway advice can resonate with all of us, no matter what physical or mental challenges you might have with running: “I always like to encourage other amputees, especially those new to limb loss, that they can do anything they want to do. You may have to do it differently than others, but you can do it!”
For more resources for amputees, check out the Amputee Coalition and the Challenged Athletes Foundation.