Running can deliver a range of health benefits to women over the course of an active lifetime.

Men and women are built differently, so they run differently, too. Being aware of those differences can give you, as an active woman, an advantage in realizing your running potential and also make you aware of possible risks.

Here are some of the main ways a woman’s body, structure, and function are different than a man’s:

  • More flexibility: Hormones let tendons stretch
  • Less muscle mass allows the body to move more freely and slightly differently with each stride, reducing injury risk.
  • More body fat, which is an advantage for endurance runners.
  • Some studies show that women are naturally better at pacing themselves.
  • A smaller heart. Because men’s hearts are bigger, they can run longer at top speeds.
  • Generally weaker cores, hips, and hamstrings, which could lead to more injuries, especially of the knees.

These uniquely female features are all a part of our focus at Tulane Women’s Sports Medicine and our team is equipped to overcome, strengthen, and take advantage of all of these features to maximize performance and prevent injury.

The Most Common Injuries in Female Runners

Overuse injuries are more common in female athletes. Some doctors attribute this to, among other things, low body mass in the legs and low dietary levels of calcium and fats. The risk may increase with aging because protective estrogen levels decrease around and after menopause.

Here are the seven most common types of injuries in female runners:

  • Runner’s knee (pain below the kneecap).
  • Iliotibial band (ITB) friction syndrome. The iliotibial band is a band of tissue that helps keep the knee joint stable; the pain, which is located on the outside of the knee joint, can be severe.
  • Achilles tendinitis. At first, this inflammation of the Achilles tendon may just feel like ankle stiffness, but it can lead to a ruptured tendon if left untreated.
  • Medial tibial stress syndrome, which causes pain in the lower leg (also known as shin splints).
  • Stress fractures, which are hairline fractures of bones in the lower leg.
  • Muscle tears. These tears, which are common in runners, can develop suddenly. The hamstring, groin, and calf muscles are most at risk.
  • Plantar fasciitis. This pain in front of the heel radiates down the arch of the foot and to the back of the heel. It is usually caused by poor flexibility in the calves or hamstrings.

We know your musculoskeletal health is the core of all health issues for women. In addition to regular check-ups tailored to you, here are some basic tips to help you avoid the pain between visits.

Tips for Avoiding Pain

The good news for runners is that knee pain is not necessarily the result of a life of running. A study published in Arthritis Care & Research found that runners had no more risk of symptomatic osteoarthritis of the knee than non-runners.

The secret to avoiding runner’s knee and other injuries is to protect your bones, joints, muscles, and ligaments from the start. Here are a few tips:

  • Get fitted for the right shoes. Getting proper support for your feet’s natural architecture will ease the impact of pounding on your legs.
  • Replace your shoes when their shock absorption capacity inevitably wears down. While experts don’t agree on exactly when your shoes must be ditched, the recommendation is every 300-600 miles. If you start feeling pain anywhere in the lower half of your leg, or the soles of your shoes look worn and bend easily — it’s time for new kicks.
  • Strength-train. Strength-training once or twice a week is recommended for any runner, but pay special attention to your hips and core.
  • Don’t increase mileage more than 10 percent each week.
  • Consider running on smooth (or smoother) terrain. It’s not always possible, but avoiding curbs and obstacles will result in less stress on the body.
  • Leaning slightly forward during a run can help you avoid getting runner’s knee as time goes by. Flex more at the hip and allow your torso to come forward 7 to 10 degrees, which transfers your weight from your knees to your hips.
  • Maintain your stride rate, even when going downhill.

Develop Your Optimal Diet

Dispensing advice on nutrition for runners can be tricky because one-size-fits-all rules don’t apply. What we should eat varies from person to person, as does the amount.

You should keep in mind, however, that gastrointestinal (GI) issues are common among runners. When you run, blood is diverted to muscles involved in running and away from other areas of the body. This slows digestion, but at the same time speeds up how fast your body gets rid of the waste.

While preparing for a run, base eating decisions on your previous experience and be consistent.

Dr. Mulcahey advises runners to consider carbohydrates among other things:

Hydrate well before a run and make sure to eat a meal that includes carbohydrates, which supply your muscles with the fuel they need to perform well.  Following a run, it’s important to recover completely. Eating protein within 30 – 60 minutes after the run will allow your muscles to rebuild.  Interestingly, chocolate milk is one of the best recovery drinks, since it contains protein and carbohydrates. Enjoy!

In general, be aware of how many calories you’re burning (try this calculator). The rate will depend on your size and the intensity of your run.

Whether you’re trying to overcome a running injury, avoid one, or just improve your endurance or performance, the professionals at Tulane Women’s Sports Medicine can help. With our integrated approach, we can help you optimize your running performance and help you be a runner for life.

Contact Tulane Women’s Sports Medicine with any questions or for more information.