As Marathon Nears, Runners Get Fit and Healthy for the Big Race

By Drew Munhausen

With the Chevron Houston Marathon less than three months away, Brenda Hilton, a 71-year-old runner with more than two dozen marathons under her belt, is already preparing for the big race. Hilton said weekday runs are becoming more consistent and they are accompanied by longer runs on the weekends. However, it wasn’t too long ago that Hilton thought she might have to give up running for good.

“I was running through a lot of pain and stiffness,” Hilton said. “I was experiencing what I thought was a hamstring pull resulting in pain down the back of my leg, but it never seemed to heal. It was painful to run, to sit in a chair or even sit in my car. After running with pain for two years, I was almost ready to give up on marathons. However, I was finally treated for piriformis syndrome.  I cut back on the running and sought physical therapy.”

Piriformis syndrome is a neuromuscular disorder. The piriformis is a small muscle that stabilizes the hip and also helps the hip rotate. Piriformis syndrome starts with pain and numbness in the buttocks that can be severe and trigger pain down the length of the sciatic nerve, which runs down the back of the leg.

Hilton went to the Memorial Hermann IRONMAN Sports Medicine Institute for physical therapy with Jaime Aparicio, a board certified sports clinical specialist  and strength and conditioning specialist with The Institute. Aparicio is also a 2019 Chevron Houston Marathon Ambassador. Through strength training and dry needling (a technique similar to acupuncture), Hilton was able to eliminate her pain.

“If you’re experiencing an injury, it’s important to get to the bottom of it,” Hilton said. “I was disappointed to think that I might have to give up running and started thinking it was just the result of old age. After much searching, I was able to find experts who helped identify the problem properly and fix it. I am now running pain free and I am so grateful.”

Helen Yee, an Austin transplant who has completed marathons in Boston and Tokyo, arrived at the The Institute seeking treatment for a stress fracture. While her plan was to return to training after her fracture healed, she gained more from her visits to The Institute than she originally expected, including a full gait assessment.

“I wanted to make sure my running form was correct,” Yee said. “I also did a nutrition consult so that I could learn different ways to fuel for a race. It’s a whole new approach for me. Also, Jaime is helping me work towards a new personal best race time.”

As race day nears, Aparicio provided some tips for new and returning marathon runners alike.

  • Focus on your feet (and hips). I am a firm believer that having strong feet and hips helps keep running injuries at bay. While proper shoes can make running more comfortable, I encourage runners to spend time outside of shoes, both at home and outdoors, to help build stronger feet. I also encourage single-leg activities, like single-leg squats, calf raises and hops to strengthen both hips and feet.
  • Give your body the proper fuel. Here in Texas, we’re still seeing high humidity and temperatures in the 80s and 90s. It’s important that you drink enough water throughout the day, not just after a run, so that your body is consistently hydrated. Also, make sure you’re eating the right types of foods to fuel your body and recover. Talk with a sports dietitian about how many calories you need for your current training schedule, what types of calories are best, and the appropriate timing.
  • Learn how to use a foam roller. Research shows the benefits of using a foam roller to both prepare your muscles for a workout and to dissipate post-workout soreness.  When using the foam roller before exercise, roll eight to 10 times at a moderate pace along the muscle and follow with dynamic stretching. When using post-exercise, slowly roll the targeted area until the most tender spot is found. Continue rolling on that targeted area for 20 to 30 seconds until discomfort is reduced. If the discomfort becomes intolerable, back off.
  • Know your limits. Every runner has a threshold, and if you cross it, you could injure yourself and set back your training. The general rule of thumb is to build your weekly training mileage by no more than 10 percent each week. That means if you run 10 miles the first week, do just 11 miles the second week. However, if you’re a beginning runner, a 10 percent increase may be too much initially and may result in an injury as training volume ramps up. Also, consider the “conversation rule.”  During an easy mile, you should be able to hold a conversation.
  • Don’t be afraid of taking a rest day. It takes a lot of mental strength and determination to train for a marathon. However, I always remind runners that taking a rest day is just as important as pushing through the mental barriers. Rest is when your body recovers and makes gains based on the training stimulus provided. You can always incorporate other activities like swimming or strength training to become a stronger and more efficient runner without putting the same strain on your joints.

“Finishing a marathon or half-marathon is a huge accomplishment and can give you a feeling of empowerment,” Aparicio said. “However, it’s important that runners train smart in order to avoid injury in the lead up to the marathon. Don’t forget to have fun doing it.”

Athletes looking for help achieving their highest level of performance can schedule an appointment at Memorial Hermann IRONMAN Sports Medicine Institute-Human Performance Lab. The Institute offers performance testing services including gait analysis, sports nutrition, and lactate threshold testing.  To schedule an appointment, call 713.897.7912 or use ScheduleNow.

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Ali Vise