When you’re out on the road or trail, in the zone, with good music in your ears, it’s easy to tune out the world and become hyper-focused on your run. There’s nothing quite like it, but the downside is that it can be easy to get so distracted that accidents and injuries are more likely.
On the other hand, even if you are super alert on the road, accidents happen. Are you prepared for dealing with them if something happens on your run?
In this article, we’ll go through some essential first aid for runners and triathletes. We highly recommend doing a certified first aid course, but just a bit of knowledge and awareness can make a huge difference in a sticky situation.
Let’s dive in!
On-The-Go First Aid for Runners
You never know when you may encounter a stray tree branch, pothole, or distracted driver. Being alert is half the battle. But being prepared is the other half.
Here are the main things you need to know how to deal with on the road.
Scrapes and Cuts
Cuts, scrapes, and bleeding are some of the most common things runners and triathletes have to deal with.
It’s really not difficult to cut or scrape yourself, even while you’re on the move! Here are just a few examples of ways you may cut or scratch yourself:
- Tripping and falling
- Running past a branch or fence wire
- Opening a stubborn zipper or packet
Whether it’s a mild scrape or cut, or something more serious, it’s imperative to get on top of it quickly. There are two primary goals here: to stop severe bleeding and to lower the chances of infection.
Clean the wound first. If you carry a first aid kit or someone stops to help and can give you first aid supplies, try to clean it with hydrogen peroxide or saline solution. If water is all you’ve got, then that’s good enough.
As soon as you can, apply antiseptic ointment to the cut or scratch. If it’s not actively bleeding or oozing, you can leave it uncovered. If it’s bleeding or oozing, cover it with a bandage until it’s under control.
Carefully assess whether continuing to run with the injury is a good idea or not. If it’s in a spot like on a joint where flexing and extending it will cause more pain and possibly make it worse, we recommend cutting your run short.
And if you’re bleeding heavily but you don’t have bandages, gauze, or help? Whip off your t-shirt and use it to staunch the blood flow until help comes.
A little-known trick for closing up wounds is to superglue them. This will help to stop blood loss, but make extra sure that the wound is clean and the superglue isn’t contaminated.
Sprains are particularly easy to fall prey to on trail runs, due to the rough ground. It’s tempting to keep running or even walking on the injured ankle once it’s been sprained, but staying off the painful foot will prevent it from getting worse.
How can you tell if it’s a bad twist, a sprain, or a broken ankle?
A strain is a stretching of the ligaments in the ankle, and it’s the least serious of the three. Swelling is likely to occur, but there’s not likely to be bruising.
A sprain, on the other hand, swells, and bruises. Bruising may not happen instantly, though, so this might not be a helpful distinction while you’re sitting on the sidewalk!
If you experience a limited range of motion, a popping or cracking sound when the injury happens, numbness, or if your skin goes unusually pale, there’s a chance of a fracture.
In these cases, take extra care when treating the ankle. And definitely don’t continue running!
So how do you treat it in the moment? It can be hard to tell exactly which it is when it happens, so it’s best to treat it as a worst-case scenario.
Take the weight off your foot and apply ice or an ice pack as soon as possible. Icing helps to reduce swelling and encourages fluid to move instead of building up around the joint.
Cut your run short and get it checked by a doctor!
Muscle cramps can be excruciating. Usually, they’re a result of electrolyte depletion and can be remedied by making sure you’re consuming enough electrolytes throughout your run.
Stretching is the best way to ease muscle cramps. Take a couple of minutes to stretch the muscle gently while you’re waiting for your electrolyte supplement to kick in. We recommend never being without an electrolyte tablet or two when out on a run.
Gently rubbing the muscle can help to accelerate the movement of metabolic waste through the muscle. Stretch, rub, and make sure the cramp is completely gone before continuing your run.
Dehydration might seem like a small thing, but it can very quickly become life-threatening in certain circumstances. Staying properly hydrated can, literally, be a lifesaver during your run.
If you run in hot conditions, even slight dehydration can rapidly turn into heat exhaustion or worse, heat stroke. Some symptoms of dangerous heat exposure include:
- Flushed, dry skin
- An unusually fast heart rate
- A headache
- Lightheadedness and dizziness
- A sore, dry throat
Take particular notice if you stop sweating during a run. This is a sign that there’s no more fluid in the body to sweat out! Vomiting is also a sign of extreme heat fatigue.
The first thing you NEED to do is get out of the sun. Although heat exhaustion can happen in less sunny conditions, usually the sun has a lot to do with it.
Rest and take small sips of fluid. If water is all you have, then it’s better than nothing. Ideally, you want to be drinking an electrolyte solution or a sports drink, to balance out what you’ve lost.
More effective measures include placing cold packs behind your knees, in the armpits, and to the back of your neck. This will help to bring your body temperature down.
In these cases, it’s best to call someone to fetch you and get you to a doctor so they can administer IV fluids. It’s the fastest way for your body to get fluid and electrolytes and balance out again.
Create A First Aid Kit
We strongly recommend putting together a first aid kit specifically for running. You won’t necessarily be able to carry this with you during your run, although you should definitely try to fit at least an electrolyte tablet, a small bandage, and a single-use cold pack in your running belt.
Keep the full first aid kit in your car. That way, wherever you’re running, chances are it won’t be far away. We suggest encouraging your running buddies to do the same, in case you’re traveling with someone else!
Here’s what we recommend stocking your emergency kit with:
- Rubber gloves (preferably latex-free)
- Bandages in a few different sizes
- Adhesive band-aids
- Alcohol swabs
- Saline solution
- Antiseptic/antibiotic ointment
- Antibacterial wipes
- Insect repellant
- Petroleum jelly
- Anti-nausea tablets
- Electrolyte tablets
- Nutrition bars or energy gels or chews
- A space blanket
- Extras of your prescription meds
Make sure all of this is packed into a waterproof container. You don’t want all your supplies to be ruined in the case of heavy rainfall and a leaky trunk!
Other Tips for First Aid
Don’t Pop Blisters
We know – it’s super tempting to just zap those blisters. However, we suggest you leave them as is.
The fluid inside blisters is naturally antiseptic and helps the blister to heal faster. Popping a blister also leaves you open to infection.
The best thing to do is to cover it with a band-aid and make sure that the risk of chafing is low. Choose socks that advertise themselves as blister-proof or chafe-proof, and have no seams that could rub against the blister.
Even when the weather is cloudy! Don’t neglect this step before heading out for your run. It could be the difference between a good recovery and late-onset heat exhaustion.
In fact, it’s a good idea to add a small bottle of sunscreen to your first aid kit, as well as some after-sun lotion. Double up with a hat that protects your head and face from the sun, and you should be prepared to deal with the heat.
This simple step can help prevent cramps, nausea, and heat-related conditions. Get in the habit of hydrating properly, before, during, and after a run.
Make sure you have enough water with you for the length of your run. If you’re a long-distance fan, it may be wise to invest in a hydration system that allows you to carry a larger amount of water.
Run With a Buddy
Running with a friend can help immensely in terms of first aid on the road or trail. Sometimes you simply need a helping hand to stretch out a cramping muscle, but in more serious cases, it could be life-saving.
If you become incapacitated, your running buddy can get help. Having someone with you also helps if you need to bandage somewhere that’s a little difficult to reach or if you need extra pressure to staunch blood flow.
It’s also helpful if you need to hobble back to your car on a sore ankle or knee. A shoulder to lean on is always appreciated!
Check Your Watch’s Incident Detection
Many smartwatches include safety features like tracking and incident detection. Double-check your watch and see if it has an impact or fall detection feature.
If it does, it would be a good idea to test it and make sure it works in case you need it on the road. If not, it may be worth investing in a watch that does include it.
Wear the Right Clothing
Most sports clothing incorporates either cooling or heating technology, depending on the season it’s designed for. If you’re running in the heat, make sure you’re wearing breathable gear.
In the cold, layering is your friend. Choose a warming base layer and stack light layers on top of it to trap heat in between. If you do start to overheat, remove a layer at a time. It’s also worth investing in running gloves, a beanie or balaclava, and proper winter socks.
When Is It An Emergency?
While in many cases it’s completely possible to treat yourself or be treated by a running buddy when you get injured on the road, in certain cases, it’s necessary to get medical assistance as soon as possible.
Call 911 immediately if you:
- Lost consciousness (or are with someone who’s lost consciousness)
- Suspect heat exhaustion or heatstroke
- Have chest pain and shortness of breath
- Are bleeding profusely
- Sustain a head or neck trauma
- Have an open fracture in which the bone has pierced the skin
- Get hit by a vehicle
- Experience a seizure