If you are preparing to run the Pear Blossom race in April, a visit to the Rogue Valley Family YMCA next Saturday might be the boost that puts you over the top.

If you are preparing to run the Pear Blossom race in April, a visit to the Rogue Valley Family YMCA next Saturday might be the boost that puts you over the top.

The YMCA, organizer of the Pear — the region's largest road race — has gathered several sports medicine and running professionals together for a free Health Screening Clinic where they'll help analyze, scrutinize, organize and otherwise improve your running to help you stay healthy.

"The idea (for this clinic) was from being involved in the Pear Blossom and being a foot doctor and liking to run," says Evan Merrill, a Medford podiatrist who will examine runners at the Y, "and to support the race and support the community. Most runners are happy and friendly and want to improve their lives and stay healthy."

Merrill understands running from both sides of the doctor's office. He's run seven road marathons and the Siskiyou Out Back 50-kilometer race. He's come to a few conclusions about running injuries.

Patients will usually visit him, he says, "when there's pain enough to cause you to stop running. There are always aches and pains when you run, and they can come and go as you loosen up, but something that's continuing to nag and be painful, you should seek help."

At the clinic, Merrill will offer a brief foot exam and discuss running aches and pains, as well as ways to alleviate them.

Prevention is the best way to stay healthy and optimize performance, says physical therapist Matt Jurek, who will be on hand to assess running form and suggest exercises to strengthen the weak links.

"We have a good series of functional tests that will be run to test the lower extremities' ability to handle impact," says Jurek, who works at Jackson County Physical Therapy in Medford.

He'll usually start by observing a runner's form as he or she performs a squat.

"How can you hold your body control by squatting?" Jurek asks. "Single-leg squat, single-leg hops, we'll test your core strength through a plank series, and the Thomas Test, where you can test flexibility of hip flexors along with quadriceps and the IT (iliotibial) band."

For new runners, injuries often result when the body has not fully adjusted to the impact, says Jurek, adding that running stress occurs along the chain from hip to foot.

"Something breaks down, usually it's the knee, because it's caught between two troublemakers — the ankle and the hip," says Jurek. "A couple of hip strengtheners and ankle stabilizers can go a long way. Sometimes ... you need to sufficiently warm up, do some dynamic stretching, or static stretching at the end to improve the length of the muscle."

There has been a dramatic increase in the local popularity of trail running in recent years, and Jurek has found that working on specific muscles can help off-road runners.

"When you trail run and you're working over a variety of terrain and incline, you're going to end up using your gastroc (gastrocnemius, a calf muscle) and glutes a lot more, so strengthening and endurance training for both muscle groups would be hugely important," says Jurek.

For trail runners with sore knees, Jurek offers a suggestion.

Generally speaking, the more inclines and declines on the trails you do, the more susceptible your knees and ankles will be to overuse injuries at the joint level, he says. So instead of trying to attack a hill all at once — straight up, straight down — use a switchback, zigzag pattern instead to save a lot of wear and tear on your knees.

Shoe technology has changed significantly in the past decade, and using the right shoe is often the key to preventing injury. Shoe experts from the Rogue Valley Runners store in Ashland will be on hand to help athletes pick a bio-mechanically appropriate shoe.

"We will have a treadmill and a recording device on hand, as well as models of various shoes," says store owner and ultrarunner Hal Koerner. "Through the use of the treadmill and watching individual foot falls and phases of the foot cycle, we'll offer up our best suggestion as to which shoe type would be best to help dissipate shock and take the foot through the phase quickly and efficiently."

Koerner has had his share of running injuries, so he likes the clinic approach of gathering a variety of specialists together as a way to help prevent future issues.

"Podiatrists do a great job of diagnosing injuries and foot maladies that we aren't educated for," Koerner explains. "I have had a number of runners seek rehab from these specialists, and when it's combined with the right footwear, they can continue to lead healthy, comfortable, running lives."

Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer and ultrarunner who lives in the Applegate Valley. Email him at dnewberry@jeffnet.org