Common running ailments

Ealing running mass crowd

It is generally accepted that runners are healthier than the average person but running can put you more at risk of succumbing to illness and injury. The trick is getting the right amount and type of training at the right time but even the most careful and sensible runners will be struck down with some kind of injury or illness from time to time.

Hence it is worth considering what they may be and how you might deal with them. A useful book to have on your shelf is Running Doc's guide to healthy running by Lewis G. Maharam, MD. The Running Doc gives you a comprehensive guide to running injuries and illnesses and how to deal with them. Here are a few common complaints and tips on how to treat them, some from the book and some from our experience at runbritain.

‘Niggles’, sore muscles or DOMS

If your muscles feel or more tight or tired than usual you would be wise to apply R.I.C.E. for the first 72 hours:

R = rest

I = Ice

C = Comfortable compression

E = Elevation

There is often debate on whether you should choose ice or heat. For the first 72 hours it is better to apply ice. Heat can further injure blood vessel walls that are easily broken and so can actually increase swelling and cause further damage. Ice minimises swelling around the injury. Heat opens up the blood vessels and this stimulates blood flow to an area, which enhances the flow of nutrients and the removal of waste products, so it is useful once the injury has ‘settled down’ but ice can also do this: Although it initially vasoconstricts (constricts the blood vessel) after 20 minutes or so reactive vasodilation occurs (the blood vessel opens) and so encourages the body to send the goodness to that area and remove the waste. The blood vessels remain open for a further 45 minutes after icing for 20 minutes and so it may be wise to use ice on acute injuries and save heat for more chronic conditions. Heat relaxes and loosens tissues and helps relieve tired and aching muscles.

With both ice and heat you need to be careful not to burn the skin. Ensure you put something between your skin and the ice or heat. Both can be used for about 20 minutes at a time unless applied by compression or massage and then you should reduce the time accordingly. Ten minutes should suffice if pressure is used.


Foot ailments – Blisters

If you find that you are suffering with blisters you should make a few checks on your footwear:

Shoes – are they big enough? You should have approximately a thumbs width between your longest toe and the end of the shoe. Your foot will expand as it strikes the ground and so, unless the shoe has been designed to expand with it, you will need to allow for this. Don’t be surprised if you go up a shoe size or two in running shoes. You should also check that you have enough room in the toe box or at the front of the shoe, especially if your foot is wide, which brings us onto the width. Running shoes are built on different lasts - standard and wide - so if you have a wide foot make sure you find a shoe that is built on a wide last.


Socks – Your sock should wick the moisture away from your foot to keep it dry. There are some socks on the market that have a double layer. The idea is that the layers will rub on each other rather than on your skin but you should make sure the layers are sitting flat against each other after they have been through the wash and are not ‘bunched up’ or this could cause a blister!


Vaseline – It may be useful to apply Vaseline to any areas that are troublesome.


If a blister occurs you have to decide whether or not to drain it. If it is only a small blister it is probably best left alone but if it is large and is going to cause discomfort on your next run you may want to drain it. To do this you need to use a sterile needle or pin: Pierce the blister on both sides being careful that you don’t drive the needle in too far to touch your skin and then push the fluid out. Once you have ‘popped’ it you need to keep it dry and clean. You could wear ‘flip-flops’ inside to let the air get to it and make sure you put clean socks on if you need to go outside.

If a blister becomes infected you should go to the doctor. An infected blister will have pus coming out of it and the skin will be red and hot around it.


Callouses are common on runners’ feet. They often occur if the foot biomechanics are less than perfect and many over-pronators find they have callouses towards the inside of the forefoot. Callouses are essentially hard blisters and a callous may even prevent a blister occurring in that area, although it is possible to get a blister underneath a callous. Some runners have found removal to be beneficial so you may want to get it removed unless you think it may be doing a job in protecting you from further blisters or if you think it would just come straight back. Some runners have found removal to be beneficial.


Athlete’s Foot

Athlete’s is a fungal infection that normally occurs on the bottom of the foot or between the toes. It will feel itchy and could be red in colour, scaly and peeling. To avoid athlete’s foot you should try to keep your feet dry and change your socks and shoes regularly. If it occurs you can treat it with a spray or cream from the chemist.

Black toe nails

Black toe nails are normally caused by the toes banging on the end of the shoe. Again, this can be because there is not enough room between the end of the longest toe and the end of the shoe. Running downhill can increase the chance of this occurring and can cause it even when there is a space at the front of the shoe. Experiment with tying the shoe laces in a way that will hold your foot around the middle by utilising the two small, top lace holes.

Colds and flu

Now that the COVID outbreak has become more controlled normal colds have returned. Exercise is good for you – it can boost your immunity – but it can also put you on the edge. After a hard session your immunity is decreased for 72 hours so you are more susceptible to illness. If you catch a cold, however, you may not have to stop all of your training but you will need to scale it down a notch. To decide whether you should stop completely you need to do a couple of checks:

1.       Where is the cold? If it is a ‘head cold’ and above your throat you can go out for an easy run. If it is in the throat or below, however, you must rest and recover.

2.       Do you need to take medication? If it is bad enough for medication you must not run

3.       Have you got a fever? If so then you must not run.

Fever + elevated temperature through exercise = DANGER of damage to vital internal organs

There is a saying that prevention is better than cure and since there is no cure for a cold then prevention is doubly better in this instance! To avoid getting colds and flu you should avoid the people who have got them. That is, if you know who they are! Use hand cleansers, wash your hands frequently and use anti-bacterial sprays and wipes on equipment that is shared with infected people. Keep your immune system in good health by eating nutritious foods and getting plenty of sleep.

You also have a duty to avoid passing any cold germs you may have to others. Use tissues to sneeze into and make sure you throw them in the bin afterwards.

To treat your cold you should drink plenty of fluids to try and flush the germs out. Cold remedies may make you feel better in the short term but can actually prolong a cold so it is probably better tolerate it and drink plenty of water. Some runners swear by vitamin C, zinc, Echinacea etc. but there doesn’t seem to be any proof that they work. Homemade chicken soup, on the other hand, has been shown to make a difference! Apparently the fat, in homemade chicken soup, inserts itself in the bacterial cell wall and breaks it up.


Iron deficiency is common in endurance runners, especially females. Running can actually break down red blood cells as the foot strikes the ground. If you are feeling ‘washed-out’ or ‘lack lustre’ it may be wise to see your GP for a blood test. The doctor will want to check your hematocrit level. This is the ratio of red blood cell volume to total blood volume. As a runner you should have a high haematocrit level as the oxygen carrying red blood cells are essential to you performance. Make sure you tell the doctor that you are and endurance runner so that he or she can take this into account when analysing the results of your blood test. It can take a long time to recover from anaemia so, if you think you may be short of iron, waste no time in seeking advice and consider a multi-vitamin with iron from over the counter at the chemists until you have been checked out.