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Physical Therapy at Home for Distance Runners

Last updated: June 2, 2022

Running is a high-impact sport, which means you have a higher risk of injury compared to low-impact sports such as cycling, swimming, and rowing. Distance runners are prone to injury because they run high mileage and may not be supplementing with a proper weightlifting or physical therapy program. Fortunately, you can treat some of the most common running injuries with at-home physical therapy exercises. Once you receive a diagnosis from your doctor, you can begin a treatment plan to return to normal activity.

What are the Benefits of Doing Physical Therapy?

Physical therapy is incredibly important for runners dealing with injury, bouncing back from surgery, or simply looking to prevent future injuries. Physical therapy involves exercise treatment for immobilized or impaired parts of the body, so patients can return to normal ranges of movement and flexibility.

When first dealing with an injury, you’ll need to rest until the pain and swelling subside. You shouldn’t be doing physical therapy if you’re in serious pain, and you shouldn't be doing physical therapy movements that cause pain.

It’s ok if you have minor pain or soreness and do physical therapy exercises as your body heals, as these movements can speed the healing process and teach your body how to move again pain-free.

When seeking treatment, your doctor will recommend how much time off you need and when you can start physical therapy.

If you’re recovering from a running injury or looking to take preventative measures, physical therapy can help:

  • Strengthen areas of weakness to support joints and muscle groups
  • Reduce or eliminate pain caused by nagging running injuries
  • Improve mobility and flexibility 
  • Teach new neurological patterns to reduce nerve flare-ups and inflammation
  • Promote “active rest”, or the concept of light exercise during your time off from running

While rest is good when first recovering from a running injury, too much rest can actually weaken the muscles and cause stiffness, which increases your chance of re-injury when you return to running. Physical therapy can ensure a safe return to sport with newfound strength and mobility. 

Common Distance Runner Injuries and Physical Therapy 

Plantar Fasciitis 

Plantar fasciitis describes the pain runners feel on the bottom of their heel and arch. This pain can continue for months and increases after exercise. Plantar fasciitis is an overuse injury exacerbated by poor fitting footwear, tight Achilles and calves, and standing on your feet all day. 

Luckily, plantar fasciitis rarely requires surgery or other invasive treatments, and responds very well to physical therapy methods. The goal is to stretch and strengthen the plantar fascia and Achilles tendon to reduce pain and return to normal activity. 

Try these physical therapy exercises for plantar fasciitis:

  • Plantar fascia stretch
  • Wall-facing calf stretch
  • Eccentric heel raise

Shin Splints

Shin splints are one of the most common runner injuries that cause acute pain in the shin and lower leg. You’ll feel tenderness and soreness along the inner side of your shin bone, which gets worse with exercise. It’s typically caused by running on flat feet, overuse, or excessive hip motion when running (which causes overstriding). 

Try these physical therapy exercises for shin splints:

  • Exercises that strengthen the hips, such as hip abduction, hip extension, and hip thrusts
  • Exercises that increase foot and arch strength, such as pulling/grabbing a cloth with your toes
  • Calf and foot stretches
  • Single-leg exercises such as heel raises, squats, and reaching exercises (can modify with assistance, or progress by adding weight)

High-Hamstring Tendonitis

High-hamstring tendonitis is a real pain in the rear–literally! Your proximal hamstring tendons are attached to your sitting bone (ischial tuberosity), and can become damaged over time through repetitive motion. This chronic pain is a result of degenerative changes to the structure of the tendon (also called tendinopathy). The tendons weaken, and it increases your risk of a partial or full tear.

While injury is tough to figure out, once you get into a good physical therapy routine, you can greatly reduce and/or manage pain to return to normal running activity. Physical therapy for high-hamstring tendonitis involves eccentrically loading the hamstring to strengthen the tendons. Physical therapists will advise against stretching, as this can actually further damage the tissue. During physical therapy, you’ll also work on strengthening surrounding muscles, such as the hip flexors, glutes, and lower back. By strengthening the posterior chain, you can greatly reduce the stress placed on the hamstring tendons when running. 

Try these physical therapy exercises for high-hamstring pain. You will likely need to build gradually in weight, reps, and difficulty as you increase your strength. 

  • Eccentric heel slides
  • Glute bridges 
  • Eccentric deadlifts
  • Hip lifts (to strengthen glutes and hips)
  • Squats (to strength glutes)

FAQs

Can I do physical therapy on my own?

Yes, you can do physical therapy on your own, but we recommend getting a diagnosis and receiving guidance from a doctor or physical therapist first. Most physical therapists will provide treatment plans you can easily do at home, since it’s unrealistic to go to a physical therapy office every day. 

Should physical therapy hurt?

Physical therapy may cause some light pain or soreness as you train the body to move again. However, it should not cause serious pain or further damage. If your physical therapy exercises are painful, you should continue to rest, or modify the exercises to reduce pain.

How does running physically change your body?

Running is a cardiovascular activity that improves heart health, strengthens muscles and bones, and builds lean muscle mass. If you run consistently, you may notice leaner legs and core muscles, since running burns calories and fat quickly. While running doesn't bulk up your body, it will create a lean, toned figure with developed lower leg muscles.  


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