Staying Injury-Free with Dr. Heather North, Physical Therapist and Running Coach

Dr. Heather North is the owner of Red Hammer Rehab in Louisville, Colorado, and a co-founder of Revolution Running club (she is also a coach and in-house physio for the club). She has been awarded “Best Sports Medicine Doctor” in the Mountain/West region by Competitor Magazine in 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015, as well as “Best Sports Medicine Rehab Facility” in 2013, 2014, and 2015. Dr. North’s focus is on sports medicine, and is known for being aggressive with injuries (hence her nickname, “The Hammer”). She also happens to be Fun Run Box’s blog writer’s physical therapist and coach, so we thought who better to ask a few questions about staying injury-free?

Fun Run Box: What is the most common running injury that you see as a PT/coach?

Dr. Heather North: We see a lot of knee injuries. Mostly because there are so many different injuries that can occur at that joint. It also is very susceptible to poor running technique, bad biomechanics, and weakness in the major stabilizers (gluteal muscles).

FRB: What is the number one thing that new runners can do to stay injury free and why is that one thing so important?

DHN: I’m going to give two because I really feel that there are two great ways. Keeping your cadence at 180 is so very important. Not only does it make you a more efficient runner, but it also decreases the amount of impact during each foot strike you make. This translates directly to less injuries and speedier running!

The second is your butt. You want a wattage cottage not only because it helps to drive you forward. That of course is the goal of running…to move forward as fast as you are able for whatever distance you race. The gluteal muslces are most importantly major injury preventers because they stabilize the leg by keeping the knee driving over the feet and preventing knee pronation (internal rotation) and helping prevent foot pronation. If you keep the mechanics lined up, you decrease injuries substantially.

FRB: What’s your favorite workout/exercise for a new runner, or a runner just getting back into it?

DHN: My favorite exercise is hill repeats. It’s a hard workout, but one that is fun and non-intimidating. Mixed repeats of short time efforts such as 30-60 seconds is perfect. Hill workouts also get the runner’s heart rate up without putting a lot of stress on the body itself. Basically it is working the engine and not the wheels, chassis, and structure of the car.

FRB: How do you know if something is just a minor tweak that you can run through or a real injury that you should take time off from?

DHN: If there is a tweak or niggle that pops up, it is smart to keep an eye on it. Don’t run hard the following day, or cross train instead. Take some ibuprofen and maybe even use a bit of ice. If it is persistenting a few days further, get a massage and take a few days off of running. Cross train instead but do stay moving. If it is still hanging on after a week or two it is time to visit your orthopedic specialist – otherwise known as your local Doctor of Physical Therapy. This person is your go-to for any injury that involves the musculoskeletal system. They are fully qualified to refer you on if need be as well and will be a wealth of information and treatment guidance. In most states DPT’s are direct access too which means you do not need a referral from your Medical Doctor.

FRB: What piece of advice would you give a new runner?

DHN: Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Be patient and consistent. Realize that so much has to change in order for your body to acclimatize to this very specific pounding and weight bearing exercise. Muscles must grow, connective tissue must become tougher and more resilient, and bones must become more dense. Start off with walking in combination with running. Run every other day, but walk every day. Begin to decrease the time you walk and increase the time you run. Advice is 10-15% increases in total running time per week. Keep your heart rate around 140-150 maximum.

FRB: Is there anything else you would add?

DHN: The best advice that I give as a DPT and as a coach for Revolution Running in Colorado is to STAY CONSISTENT. This means aim to run 80% of your weekly mileage easy (90 seconds slower than your marathon pace). The remaining 20% is split evenly into tempo (10Kish pace) and interval (faster than 5K pace). This also means running 5-6 days a week each and every week. Consistent and repeated loading of the body tempers it and makes a runner quite durable. This also translates directly into performance boosting too.

Feature Photo Credit: Rachel Dehner