In Defense of Running
Sunday, April 11, 2021
On Friday at my physical therapy appointment, there was a woman on the table beside mine who was having her knee worked on. She was telling the tech doing ultrasound how she’d injured it: she decided to start running. She ran for three miles (“that distance seemed easy enough”) for a couple of days and by the end of the week her knee was swollen. So she went to an orthopedic surgeon (“one of the most famous surgeons in Utah”) who told her that no one should ever run because it’s bad for your knees. Then she stopped talking to listen to me explaining to the tech who was helping me about my bunion surgery. “Oh, yes. See, running is bad. Running also causes bunions.”
She kept talking for the rest of the appointment and inwardly I was seething. I’m already seen as the “bad” patient in this office, because once I accidentally said the F word. (Utah is a weird, weird place.) So I just seethed quietly, and maybe rolled my eyes a few times, and didn’t say what I wanted to say:
Running doesn’t cause bunions.
And you know what’s bad for your knees? Deciding one day that you want to be a runner and then just tossing on a pair of shoes and running three miles.
But ever since I started running 21 years ago, I’ve heard the same thing about running. From friends, family members, coworkers, random strangers: running is bad for you.
Even as recently as my surgery, several people told me that I must’ve torn my tendon because I run too much.
These comments always come from people who aren’t actually runners.
Here’s the deal: Running is like any other sport. There are things to learn, research to do, techniques to understand.
Of course if you just randomly run a few miles, your body is going to hurt somewhere. People tend to think that since running is a similar motion to walking, and since walking is what people do, then it follows that you already know how to run.
In my two decades of being a runner, I have taken two running classes from a local running coach. I’ve had my gait analyzed by professionals and spent months teaching my body how to adjust to a proper cadence. I’ve read countless books and articles about techniques. I do push-ups and ab work and hip-girdle exercises, yoga and pilates and barre because I learned that strong muscles mean fewer injuries. I do cross training and take rest days. I’ve been injured and learned that it is part of being a runner. I’ve learned about overtraining, about the muscles that are generally weak in people who run, about how to stretch properly to release the strain that the repetitive motion of running causes. I’ve made mistakes and done it wrong and started again. I’ve had long discussions about the correct shoes with employees at running-shoe stores. (Dick’s doesn’t count.) I’ve experimented with different socks and anti-friction creams. I’ve learned how to time my runs around my meals, how to fuel without getting nauseated during long runs, what to eat after a run.
You wouldn’t decide one day “I’m going to be an ice skater” and then attempt a toe loop without getting injured. You wouldn’t take up rock climbing without first learning how to use your equipment.
Running is the same: you have to start at the beginning. You have to develop strength and stamina. You have to give your body time to adjust. You have to learn about your sport.
“Running damages your joints” is actually a myth. We are discovering, as people have begun running longer and longer, that our bodies adjust. The joints of a runner at the end of her life will actually be stronger than the joints of a non-runner. (HERE is just one article but there are many.)
And “running makes bunions” is just bunk.
What makes a bunion form is either wearing too-restrictive shoes or genetics. I’ve never really loved pointy high heels and have basically lived in Doc Marten’s for a good portion of my adult life. Foot problems run deep in my mom’s paternal line; my sister has had bunion repair, too, and she and some of our grand-nieces and nephews have club feet. I’m 99.99998725% sure that running did not give me bunions.
And as for too much running causing the tear in my plantar plate…only kind of. What often causes second-toe capsulitis (which is the beginning of where I ended up, with my tendon torn and my toe flopping around) is abnormal foot mechanics, which are often caused by a…bunion!
The bunion that I investigated having removed 10 years ago, which my insurance wouldn’t pay for because since it wasn’t causing me pain, it was only “cosmetic.”
Maybe if I had only sat around for the past twenty years and not done any running at all (or hiking or walking) the tear would’ve been delayed. But until the bunion was repaired, the capsulitis would only get worse.
Really, short-sited medical insurance policies caused my tendon tear.
Yesterday I talked to a neighbor I haven’t seen in a while, and he asked me why I was so anxious to get back to running. “Why not just do other things?” he asked.
And I think it is a thing you don’t understand until you actually do it. Until you feel what it’s like to be seven miles into a ten-mile run and you suddenly notice how your body is singing with movement, under the blue sky. How your skin is soaking in sun even as it drips sweat, and how deep your lungs are pulling in air, and how alive you feel. Or until you have the confidence of knowing you can always get yourself back home on your own two feet. Or the pleasure of driving past somewhere you’ve run. The excitement of slipping your feet into your shoes at the start of a run. The sweet relaxation of drinking something cold and fruity while you stretch after. All of it.
I will always be willing to put in the work that allows me to continue running and I hope I can do it until I am very, very old.