Joint Pain from Running Sets In When the High Wears Off
March 7th, 2018
Whenever I run a significant distance, I feel like I’m on top of the world. As my run comes to a close, I’m in good shape, pain-free, stress-free, like I could run forever. Of course, for many reasons, I don’t, but in the thrill of runner’s high, it’s easy to feel that way. It’s not just my body, either. I feel less anxious, like I’ve managed to outrun everything that might have weighed me down before.
It is for all of these reasons that whenever I am stressed, anxious or just irritated, my husband reminds me, “Why don’t you go for a run?” Usually, his recommendation adds to my agitation at first (after all, no one likes acting on recommendations from a spouse, haha!). But whenever I grumble my way into my shoes, and head out the door, I am reminded once again just how well he knows me - and I come back feeling amazing.
Runners, any of this sound familiar...?
What is “Runner’s High?” and why does it affect Joint Pain
Runner’s high can look different from runner to runner. When my other runner friends experience a “runner’s high,” it’s more intense and infrequent, something that comes only from intensive exercise. My “runner’s high,” is what happens whenever I break “the wall,” my comfort threshold, the point at which I don’t think I can go on anymore. When I manage to push through that, I feel a release and I know I can run that much more.
According to Chemical and Engineering News magazine1, both endorphins--our body’s own natural form of morphine, and endocannabinoids, which react much like a high from drugs--work together to produce a “runner’s high.” This acts as not only a pain reliever but also an anxiety reliever and a mood elevator. Running has always cleared my head and helped me to keep any negativity at bay. The neurochemical release I experience from a runner’s high helps me deal with the everyday stress of being a mother as well as a working woman...and there are worse things you can do to cope. The point is, after a run, I feel great. I can’t get through the day without my run.
But all good things come to an end eventually. When the runner’s high wears off, swelling starts around your joints, and pain can begin to set in.
The Runner’s High “Comedown.”
Most frequently, runners experience shin splints, pain running down the front of their shins, or pain in the iliotibial band / IT Band (ITB), an elastic connective tissue that runs runs along the outside of the thigh, from just above the hip to just below the knee.
Below are some methods that can help you best prepare and treat the pain before, during and after your runs.
Treating the Joint Pain Before, During & After a Run
There are a number of preparations you can take before your run ever begins, as well as things you can do during and after that will help reduce the pain more quickly and easily.
When all of the following measures are taken consistently, you can greatly reduce the length and severity of any pain, as well as keep your body from ongoing damage.
• Ice/Heat: Because the joints are physically swelling from the constant impact of the run, one of the most effective initial treatments, is the age old ice, then heat used to treat any sort of inflammation.
I actually have a gel ice pack that I ordered that slips right over my knee which I put on the outer side, along the IT band (ITB), and then I rotate another ice pack to other areas that are swelling.
As for heat, I have a microwavable heating pad that is perfect to wrap around different areas. These treatments are simple, yet effective if I’m able to implement them right after my run.
• Topicals: I sometimes feel like these may be more of a placebo effect than a real remedy. However, “if the shoe fits, wear it”...or in this case, “if it seems to provide relief - take it.” I’ve tried a number of different menthol and numbing topicals including Tiger Balm ², Emu Pain Relief Lotion³ and, my mom’s all-time favorite, “the purple stuff” (Purple Rub, All-Natural Pain Relief Cream⁴).
Again, I’m not so certain they relieve swelling or do anything truly medicinal, but the warming/cooling/tingling sensation they provide really is pleasant and, at the very least, is a welcome distraction from the pain.
• Elevation: Again, another typical treatment for swelling, elevating the joints that are the most swollen, right after the run, can also be helpful to keep the swelling down a bit.
• Massage: While the areas of pain can be tender, especially the day after my run, massaging these areas gently can feel good and help to stretch them out and get the blood flowing, keeping my joints from getting stiff. Remember too, even though it may not be comfortable at first, keep moving, the more you stay still the more you can stiffen and even cramp.
• Stretching: There has long been a debate among runners whether you should stretch first, or warm up a bit and then stretch. I prefer the latter, just because I’ve stretched and also strained “cold” muscles in the past and prefer not to do so again. On my runs, I have certain stopping points where I pause at a stop sign or bench and stretch. For my shorter runs, it’s around a mile out and for longer runs, it’s at the 3-mile mark. Or, if I’m feeling particularly tight, I may do both, or even stop a few additional times to stretch out an area that still isn’t feeling fully limber.
Stretching is also important after your run, especially in areas where you typically get swelling or may already have an injury (I always use stretches given to me by my physical therapist for my IT band.
All in all, you know your body, feel it out for physical cues about what is best and what it needs most - and when.
Dietary Measures (Before & During a Run):
• Hydration: Drink, drink, drink, drink. I cannot stress this one enough. Also, not just during runs but all throughout the day and the rest of the week as well. Staying hydrated will keep your muscles and joints flexible and mobile. It also helps flush lactic acid out of the muscles, which helps with pain.
While this one should really be a no-brainer as one of the first things you’ll experience when you run is thirst - take it from someone who got 11 miles away from my house on a run one hot, hot, HOT, sunny summer day and nearly fainted on the side of the road. Depending on the length of your run and the conditions and temperature, drinking a lot before-hand may NOT be enough. For longer runs, look into a water pack and/or some other easy-to-travel with method of hydration.
That fatefully dehydrated day, I became so desperate I finally started looking for houses with garden hoses I could drink from to rehydrate myself. (See, I may sound idiotic with some of these stories, but hopefully my idiocy will help remind you of these things and keep you from experiencing anything similar, haha!)
Keep in mind too, while water is quenching, something like gatorade or powerade can also provide the additional all-important electrolytes discussed above.
NOTE: You may not want to put anything other than water in a water pack though, unless you invest in a special cleaning kit, anything other than water may accumulate mold between your runs.
• Sodium: Time for self-deprecating story #2! During my first marathon, I was highly naive and I didn’t prepare correctly AT ALL. Not only did I dress in clothing that began to chaff after mile 10 (leaving me with blisters under my arms and all around the edges of my underwear, ouch!), I also thought leading up to the race, that sodium makes you feel bloated and began restricting it from my diet the closer the big day came.
...Then, during the race, at different stops and intersections, I noticed people handing out what looked like some sort of gummies to all the runners? I had no idea what they were so I declined…
Only later, did I realize, that these were ‘Energy Gummies/Gels’, packed with things that need replenishing during long runs...including: essential electrolytes like potassium, calcium, magnesium and - you guessed it - sodium.
When you sweat, you lose sodium through your pores, which can sometimes cause cramping, pain, and an overall difficulty getting your muscles to respond…(go figure - I experienced them ALL after mile 20!)
So, in preparation of a long run, and DURING a long run, provide yourself some much-needed nutrients. Pack a runner's belt with protein bars, gels or gummies that will replenish your electrolytes, including sodium!
Drugs/Pain Relievers for Joint Pain from Running
• NSAID pain relievers. I use tylenol or ibuprofen whenever I’m in extreme pain, but I try not to rely on NSAIDs too much. Personally, I’ll try to stick to the more natural treatments, or just try to stay distracted and tough it out as much as I can. Ultimately, I’m just not too keen on affecting my liver with drugs on a frequent basis. I also always keep in mind how a build-up of tolerance and, in worst cases, dependency can come with pain relief pills. (And, ladies, as I’m sure you can understand, I’d much prefer to save the infrequent pain relief usage for days when menstrual cramps arrive.)
Dietary and Supplements for Joint Pain from Running
When you are a runner, there are also some dietary and supplemental items you can add to your routine that will prepare your body for your runs and keep it ready for peak performance. Some of these include:
• Turmeric. Turmeric is the most commonly recommended spice for runners. The reason is because of its primary compound, curcumin, which works as a major anti-inflammatory agent in the body, working to soothe strained muscles and swollen joints. I actually have friends who swear by tumeric and add it to their diet often, for me though, I just am not big on the taste. I have tried it and found it to be effective, but I couldn’t find a way to work that flavor into my diet all the time, nor did I want to eat the spice straight, as some do.
• Glucosamine and chondroitin. I’ve heard mixed reviews on this one. For me, glucosamine supplements haven’t proven to be as effective as other pain relief methods, but they help a little. However, studies have actually shown that they don’t reduce inflammation as much as they’re intended to 5, and I’ve had friends who claim that glucosamine chondroitin actually didn’t provide them any relief at all. However, the purpose of the supplements are not as much to decrease inflammation as to increase the amount of fluid around the joints, so for me, they are quite helpful.
• Omega-3 supplements. Omega-3 supplements help me to experience a softer landing when the runner’s high finally wears off. I take them every day with a glass of water, and, since doing so, when my joint pain sets in, it’s not quite so jarring.
According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health6, omega-3 fish oil supplements greatly help reduce inflammation and may even aid NSAIDs like Advil. I’ve even gone without the Advil and I still found that I had reduce pain relief just from using omega-3 supplements. Personally, I use Omega XL. It has a strong presence of the fatty acids that work best on inflammation, EPA and DHA, but all the nutrients are extracted so there’s no fishy aftertaste.
Other Tips to Reduce Joint Pain from Running
Of course, there are some other things that always makes a difference that you should consider as well such as:
• Your Shoes: When worn regularly, these should be replaced every 6 months.
• Tracking: Keep a running journal and/or use an app to track your distance, time, the weather and how you felt during your runs, you may notice some improvements you didn’t before when looking back or be able to pick out important patterns that will help you improve.
• Step Outside Your Comfort Zone: The first time I signed up for a 5k, I could barely run a mile. That went well, so then I signed up for a 10 miler, again, I was terrified though because, at the time, I had never run over 5 miles. Having those dates on the calendar was daunting, but they forced me to up my game faster than I may have otherwise.
• Find Running Friends: One of the greatest things about hobbies, is they can help you meet up and spend time with others who are interested in the same things. Check out local runners meetup or facebook groups and you may be surprised at just how many people in your area you may hit it off with!
• Celebrate: Remember to celebrate your success! After all, while looking ahead at how much farther you want to go, there’s a long road behind you showcasing how far you’ve come.
The Finish Line...
Running truly is the best therapy. For me, it helps me to think more clearly, stay happier, and even be a better wife, mom, and worker during the day. With the help of hydration, a good pair of shoes, and healthy supplements, I can keep my physical pain at bay, too, so I can experience all the positive effects of a runner’s high without the crash landing into knee pain.
Try some of the above preparations, treatments and remedies and let us know how they did for you! Share with us, here in the comments, or on social.
We look forward to hearing from you, until then, enjoy your run!
1 Exploring the Molecular Basis of the “Runner’s High”
² Tiger Balm
³ Emu Pain Relief Lotion
⁴ Purple Rub, All-Natural Pain Relief Cream
⁵Effects of glucosamine, chondroitin, or placebo in patients with osteoarthritis of hip or knee: network meta-analysis
⁶Omega-3 Supplements: In Depth