With the weather finally getting better, I see runners zipping down the sidewalks to Central Park or West Side Highway, and I think to myself “Oh boy, here come the knee injury, hip pain and shin splints patients.” If you ask a running coach she would say these injuries are due to overtraining or the common, “too fast too soon.” Repetitive force from each step causes injury to the the tendons and ligaments around the joints, causing inflammation to occur to protect from further damage. The inflammation triggers pain and swelling bad enough to bench most runners. Tendons, ligaments, and cartilage take a long time to heal since those types of tissue are not very well protected.
Chinese medicine has a more poetic explanation of why runners tend to get injured more in the spring than any other season. Chinese medicine has a Five Elements Theory that explains the natural world and the seasons are inter-correlated to an element and an organ. In the spring, the element is wood and the organ is the liver. The energy of wood or the liver is to freely move upward and outward, like the branches of the tree. That is why we are roaring to start (or restart) a new exercise program in the spring. However, if we branch out too soon or if we didn’t rest well over the winter, we leave ourselves prone to injury since the new spring branches are more fragile and susceptible to break in the still chilly weather.
The liver as an organ in Chinese medicine has an inherent nature to move freely and it governs circulation. A balanced liver ensures the blood flow to the muscles and tissues during activity and back to the organs during rest. As a result, the liver is very sensitive to any type of blockage. If we enter spring not mindful of promoting liver health, we risk causing stagnation and thus injury and pain. The classical texts of the Huang Di Nei Jing says, “When the liver has enough blood…the feet can walk.”
So what is the Chinese medicine recommendation to staying injury- and pain-free during spring? Based on the Five Elements Theory we should start with light exercise to slowly improve the flow of qi and blood. Spring is the time for us to reach outward, develop deeper roots and remain flexible. In the body, that means paying attention to your spine, limbs and joints, as well as muscles, ligaments and tendons. Build in a habit of a solid warm up and cool down before each run. Take days off to focus on the building up the core, develop flexibility and strength. Maintain good circulation and fluidity in the joints with gentle movements (tai chi is a great example) and deep breathing.
Spring also means paying attention to your liver by gently spring cleaning your body. Drink plenty of fluids, and add lemon or apple cider vinegar as natural sour foods tonify the liver. Try eating light with greens, sprouts, fruits, nuts, and seeds. Avoid heavy or fried foods, anything with chemical additives, and alcohol. Since exercise and sweating aid liver detoxification, spring is a great time to slowly develop a regular exercise program.
Allow a healthy spring regime take you into summer when your body will be ready to take on more activity and heavier exercise.