Cincinnati is a town that loves to run. There's always a good reason to lace-up and start training – from the Heart Mini-Marathon to the Flying Pig, and countless 5Ks throughout the year.
Running is great for getting in shape and building endurance. It's also one of the easiest forms of exercise to start. There's no age limit. It's practically free. And there's miles of parks, paths, and running trails just waiting for you to explore.
One of the many avid runners you'll find jogging around the Queen City is orthopedic surgeon Dinesh Thawrani, MD with The Christ Hospital Physicians – Orthopedics & Sports Medicine. "I try to run four or five miles, two to three times a week," Dr. Thawrani says. "When I'm closer to doing a marathon, then I build myself more."
As a long-time Cincinnati resident, Dr. Thawrani participates in the Flying Pig half-marathon every year and has completed the Columbus Marathon several times.
But you don't have to have a marathon as a personal goal to reap the rewards of running. Dr. Thawrani says even a few miles of running a week can lead to big improvements for both your physical and emotional health.
Running can improve your joint health
Runners seem to keep going and going. You'll see runners of all ages at competitive events. Look no further than Cincinnati resident Mike Fremont, a running world record holder at the age of 100! Do you ever wonder, how can these runners' knees and feet handle decades of running?
Turns out, running can lower your risk of developing joint problems like hip arthritis and knee arthritis. Dr. Thawrani says studies have shown that running creates a protective effect with cartilage, the cushion in our joints that keeps bones from rubbing against each other.
"There's something called the cartilage conditioning process," Dr. Thawrani says. "In recreational runners, cartilage adapts to withstand the forces of running and promotes long-term joint health."
Scientists and researchers even looked at runners and nonrunners with existing injuries to see how they compared in their long-term recoveries.
"When they repeated the MRIs on those patients, they found the thickness of the cartilage got even better in runners," Dr. Thawrani says. "The runners also reported lower pain and other symptoms."
That's not to say runners won't experience their share of pains and strains now and then, but preparation and posture can go a long way towards prevention.
"Appropriate stride length while we are running, the proper shoes, and proper track or treadmill. Those are important things to incorporate in order to avoid injuries to our joints, especially our knees and hips," Dr. Thawrani says.
Boosting your overall health with running
According to national Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, we'd all be much better off moving more and sitting less. Even moderate levels of physical activity spread throughout the week can lead to improvements in your health.
"Running is not only helpful for our joint health, but also improves a lot of things in our body like losing weight," Dr. Thawrani says.
Running checks a lot of boxes for getting in vigorous aerobic exercise that raises your heart rate and activates the body's major muscles at the same time. And you don't have to aim for marathon-level gains to feel better. According to the Move Your Way campaign, just 75 minutes of high-intensity activity a week has real health benefits. That's just 15-minutes a day, five days a week!
"There are several studies done on the heart and how it changes calcification of vessels around the heart," Dr. Thawrani says. "They found that when you're doing small bouts of running a few times a week, that strengthens your heart and reduces calcification of vessels as compared to doing marathons."
In addition to feeling better during the day, running can also promote better sleep and boost your mood. "It's a stress reliver like a small meditation. It's very helpful in psychological ways apart from only physical health," Dr. Thawrani says.
Getting started with running
One of the hardest parts of getting started with any exercise program is, well, simply getting started. Dr. Thawrani says even experienced runners can struggle to get into the movement mindset.
"Before running, tying the shoes is even tougher. Once you're on the track, you'll enjoy it more," Dr. Thawrani says. "After you cross that first mile, the second and third go so much easier and easier. Every runner has probably experienced this."
Check with your doctor before starting an exercise program
If you're interested in getting more physical activity through running, it's always a good idea to talk to your primary care provider first – especially if you haven't exercised in a while. Your provider will work with you to identify any health concerns up-front, and help you get into exercise with a plan and achievable goals.
"We have to start slowly," Dr. Thawrani says. "Even young people should not go out on long runs all of a sudden. Go for a half mile or a mile at the most on your own pace, and slowly build over the next few weeks or months to a higher level of running."
No matter if you're new to running or have plenty of experience, Dr. Thawrani stresses that stretching is a must before and after your run.
"Start with some stretching exercises," Dr. Thawrani says. "We should stretch our lower extremity muscles like hamstrings, quads, calf muscle, and IT bands."
"One of the most common reasons for the pain is called IT Band Syndrome," Dr. Thawrani says. "It's one of the tendons that runs all the way from the hip to the knee. It's very common for that to get stretched in runners."
Not sure what stretches to do? We've provided a few sample stretches that you can download and print for reference:
And don't forget the water as part of your warm-up and cool-down routine! Staying hydrated goes hand-in-hand with stretching to prepare your body for exercise and for preventing muscle cramps.
"Hit the hydration while running after the first few miles. Don't rely on that first hydration before getting water again," Dr. Thawrani says "The more you're running on a dehydrated body, the more muscle trauma you can develop."
As you gain experience in running, cross training with other activities can build your core strength and improve your overall running posture.
"Runners should not consider running to be the only exercise that they do," Dr. Thawrani says "Even adding a few miles of bike riding, those types of things that improve our core strength."
"For a proper posture of running, our core strength is very important," Dr. Thawrani says. "The core strength of our body that is holding up our trunk and core part of the body should be straight up and leaning a little bit forward, not backward, while running."
When a running injury goes beyond ibuprofen
Of course, as with anything in life, runners can and do experience their share of mishaps that can lead to injury, like twisted ankles, falls, and achy joints.
Dr. Thawrani says that while some mild soreness shouldn't be an excuse to avoid running, there are some signs of injury that you should get checked by an orthopedic specialist.
"If there is excessive swelling or excessive pain that makes it difficult to walk, a deformity around a joint, the shape is changing, we should immediately pay attention," Dr. Thawrani says. "Go to the emergency room or urgent care to get taken care of."
The Christ Hospital Orthopedic After-Hours Clinic in Mt. Auburn is an additional resource, open weeknights Monday – Friday, where you can have an orthopedic specialist examine and treat running injuries and coordinate follow-up care without an appointment.
And for anyone worried that a trip to the doctor's office automatically leads to surgery, Dr. Thawrani says there are plenty of non-surgical options to try first to get folks on a path to healing and recovery.
"I keep surgery as my last option," Dr. Thawrani says. "We have so many other conservative treatment options. They may take a little time, like physical therapy, some chiropractic treatment, Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation specialists are available. We coordinate with them all the time to provide that care before talking about any surgical treatment."
Got 7 minutes for better joint health?
Our free online risk assessment can help you discover if your health or lifestyle choices might be increasing your risk for joint pain. In about seven minutes, you'll receive personalized feedback and doctor-designated education based on your answers.
Have a running injury you're ready to get checked out? Call 513-791-5200 to schedule with The Christ Hospital Physicians – Orthopedics & Sports Medicine or click or tap here to schedule an appointment online.