How a Boom in 'Endurance Sports' is Changing Medicine

Timothy Miller

When Olympic track and field hopeful Korbin Smith came to our clinic recently for treatment, he had the same concerns as many of our other patients. Smith needed to give a stress fracture in his foot an opportunity to heal, but at the same time, he desperately needed to continue his training.

It's a dilemma a growing number of endurance athletes face every day -- and the reason we started the Endurance Medicine Program five years ago at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. Since then, other centers in Texas and Virginia have opened to meet the growing needs of these athletes.

It might surprise you to know there are more endurance athletes -- including runners, cyclists and swimmers -- in the U.S. than in any other recreational sport. And the injuries they face often present unique challenges.

[Read: Physical Therapy for Running Injuries .]

When other athletes suffer an injury, many have the option of suspending their training in order to give their bodies time to heal. Baseball or basketball players, for example, might simply take some time off.

It's not that simple for endurance sport athletes. Taking just a few weeks off to allow an injury to heal can mean a setback of several months in conditioning. In fact, in one study, researchers monitored runners who took time off from their training and found that after just 12 days, enzymes in the blood associated with endurance performance dropped by a staggering 50 percent. Simply put, when it comes to the stamina these athletes develop through training, they either have to continue to use it, or they quickly lose it.

That's why more institutions are creating comprehensive specialities to help these athletes. Our team, comprised of physicians and physical therapists, as well as former and current endurance athletes, can relate to a patient's training schedule and can design therapies that allow them to safely keep their training on track.

[Read: 5 Keys to Injury-Free Running .]

If a runner is nursing a foot injury, for example, we may develop a cross-training regimen using things such as stationary bikes or lap pools. In specialized cases like Korbin Smith's, we may also use a high-tech, underwater treadmill that allows the athlete to maximize their training while minimizing impact on the injured foot.

Then, to prevent further injury, we also put many athletes through a sophisticated computer modeling program known as a " Gait Analysis." Using strategically placed markers on the body, we record the athlete running or jumping with several cameras. Then, with advanced software, we create a 3D model of the athlete on a computer and analyze his every move.

The gate analysis allows us to pinpoint any movements that might be causing or complicating injuries in these athletes. For example, if a runner instinctively pushes off with their foot in an awkward position, or if they inadvertently put undue pressure on their knees as they land, the gate analysis will catch those movements and our team of experts can help change them. Most patients simply aren't aware of these subtle tendencies, but by correcting them, we can not only keep them healthier -- but in many cases, we can improve their performance.

[Read: How to Identify a Running Injury .]

But the physical well-being of these athletes is only half the equation. Anyone who participates in an endurance sport will tell you that mental toughness is an essential part of competition and when training is disrupted by injury, many athletes experience anxiety or depressive symptoms. As a result, we also incorporate psychological counseling into the healing process.

If you're an endurance athlete, here are a few tips to keep in mind:

Listen to your body. Preventing an injury is always better than treating it. If unusual pain develops, don't ignore it. Get help.

Don't skimp on your gear. Runners should buy shoes that fit properly and should replace them when wear and tear become obvious. Cyclists need to invest in equipment appropriate for their level of training and should check seat height and tire conditions often.

Don't be afraid to see a specialist. Many athletes go to their family doctors for the evaluation and treatment of injuries, which should always be the first step. But if you aren't satisfied with your doctor's approach to therapy, don't be afraid to reach out to a specialist. Programs like ours were developed to help athletes just like you.

By providing endurance athletes with the specialized treatment and the education they need, we're going the extra mile for this growing group of athletes, and making important strides to preventing serious injuries in the future.

[Read: 7 Mind-Blowing Benefits of Exercise.]

Dr. Timothy Miller is an assistant professor of clinical orthopedics and a team physician with OSU Sports Medicine at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. Before becoming an orthopedic surgeon and physician in sports medicine at Ohio State, Miller was an accomplished athlete for the Buckeyes. He's a former captain of The Ohio State University track and cross country teams who earned Academic All-Big Ten honors all four years he competed.