What Runners Need to Know About Inflammation

Molly Hurford
by Molly Hurford
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Inflammation isn’t just that big puffy sprained ankle or swollen kneecap after a bad fall on a trail. For most runners, inflammation is low-grade and chronic, rather than intense and acute. Running breaks down muscle tissue in the body, and inflammation is part of the repair and recovery process. But often, our lifestyles are leading to other sources of less-helpful inflammation, so when it’s all compounded, the result is less-than-stellar progress in our running.

“When regulated and under control, inflammation is an essential component of immune system function and is necessary for our body to be able to heal from injuries. Problems arise, however, when inflammation is unregulated, becomes chronic, and spreads throughout the body,” says Natalie Johnson, a functional medicine certified health coach and yoga instructor who specializes in gut health and hidden inflammation.

“Chronic inflammation is the underlying cause of major diseases and is a contributor to our day-to-day complaints such as muscle tightness, chronic allergies, migraines, GI distress and brain fog,” she adds. “It can be driven by a variety of lifestyle factors such as poor sleep, poor diet, under- or over-exercising, frequent antibiotic usage, chronic, elevated stress, NSAID usage, and food intolerances.”

Even if you feel as though you’re doing everything right — in training and your general lifestyle, there are many ways chronic inflammation can sneak in and wreak havoc on your body.

“Signs of inflammation in athletes can be broad and sometimes hard to identify as inflammation due to demanding schedules and how common it is for athletes to not prioritize nutrition,” says Kelly Jones, a sports dietitian. “Symptoms include fatigue and muscle soreness, as well as poor recovery, but also pain flare-ups associated with previous injuries, poor digestive health, high blood pressure and more.” (Research has shown hard-training athletes are at higher risk of developing chronic feelings of fatigue. So, if you notice yourself dragging for more than a couple of days and can’t pinpoint the reason, it’s time to start focusing on your overall health, not just your weekly mileage.)

WAYS TO FIGHT INFLAMMATION

If you’ve been feeling stuck, constantly dealing with low-grade gut issues or feeling puffy, you may want to heed some of these expert tips on fighting inflammation:

1

LOOK FOR OTHER INFLAMMATION SOURCES

While exercise takes a toll on your adrenal system, many people struggle with digestive issues, indigestion, leaky gut and irritable bowel syndrome, explains Len Lopez, a clinical nutritionist, strength and conditioning coach and chiropractic sports physician. “If you clean up your diet, your ability to recover and progress is much better.” The same is true of stress levels and the amount you’re sleeping: The more your body is in fight-or-flight mode, the more prone to inflammation it is, and the harder it will be for your body to recover from even the easiest training runs.

2

TWEAK YOUR DIET

“Prioritizing adequate omega-3, vitamin D and high intake of fruits and vegetables are always my first defense at supporting proper inflammatory responses with my athletes,” says Jones. “Working on increasing fruit and vegetable intake to ensure a wide variety of antioxidants and nutrients is critical, too. From there, some athletes may also benefit from a multi-strain probiotic, or at least increased intake of probiotic foods, as a favorable balance of bacteria in the digestive tract plays a role in immune processes and antioxidant functions and therefore inflammatory reactions.”

If you already eat a diet relatively low in refined sugar and high in a rainbow’s worth of vegetables, it may be time to seek expert help from a registered dietitian, preferably one who works with athletes. “In some athletes, I may need to evaluate foods causing excess inflammation,” Jones adds. “This is most likely to be a problem in athletes with identified autoimmune disorders or a history of food allergies and intolerances. While many people automatically think of gluten and dairy, and those could cause problems in some individuals, literally any food has the ability to cause a reaction, which is why nutrition is so individualized.”

3

TAKE A REST WEEK

Especially during 2020, with almost no races on the calendar to allow for a more up-and-down training plan that adds in recovery and taper weeks, and with huge amounts of added stress in our lives, it’s easy to see how we can end up in a state of chronic inflammation. If you can’t remember the last time you took a week (or a day) off, it’s time to hang up your running shoes for a few days and focus on de-stressing, catching up on sleep, and gentle movement like walking or swimming. Yes — it’s time to start meditating, as meditation has been shown to help in cases of chronic inflammation.

4

SKIP THE DRUGS

Over-the-counter pain relievers may help reduce swelling and soreness temporarily, but they often mask the underlying cause of inflammation and make it harder for your body to recover adequately between workouts. If you find you’re popping a pill before or after every run, it’s time to seek expert help from a medical professional

Whether you want to run your first mile or set a PR, having a plan gets you there faster. Go to the MapMyRun app, tap “Training Plans” — you’ll get a schedule and coaching tips to help you crush it. 

About the Author

Molly Hurford
Molly Hurford

Molly is an outdoor adventurer and professional nomad obsessed with all things running, nutrition, cycling and movement-related. When not outside, she’s writing and podcasting about being outside, training and health. You can follow along with her adventures on Instagram at @mollyjhurford.

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