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Cross-Training: Top Tips For Injured Runners

Mary Wilkinson inov-8 blog - Cross-Training For injured Runners. Photo by Ellen Isherwood (Lancs Racing Scene)

What do you do when you are injured and it stops you from running? Sulk, get angry, feel sorry for yourself, drink beer?! Quite possibly all of the above, but as frustrating as injury is, being unable to run for a prolonged period of time may actually have some positives. You can try out new activities that you otherwise may not have, and not being able to run may actually make you a better runner when you do start back… bear with me!

As runners we train and race our bodies to their limit and as such continually walk a knife edge of maximum performance on one side and being injured or ill on the other. Certainly a sensible, progressive approach to training and a well designed strength and conditioning programme will help to reduce the risk of getting injured. But unfortunately some people are just more prone to picking up injuries than others regardless of how careful we are. Plus, terrains encountered when trail running, fell running and mountain running expose us to an even higher risk.

I’ve had my fair share of injuries. I’m not going to reel them all off, but over the last few years I’ve probably had to cross-train as much as I have been able to run train. Despite this, I’ve still managed to produce some strong performances, most notably, after only starting to run a few weeks earlier, I finished 4th in the European Mountain Running Championships. I just missed out on the medals by a few seconds… even though I hadn’t run a step for over 5 months prior to that. So what do I do when I can’t run to try and keep, if not improve, my running fitness? And how do I keep motivated to keep training even in the darkest depths of an injury layoff?

1. Work out what exercise you can do pain-free

Once you have determined what your injury is (usually with either physiotherapy and/or medical advice) find out what you are able/allowed to do exercise-wise. The most common examples of aerobic activities are swimming, aqua-jogging, cycling, the cross-trainer, stepper and rowing, although if the injury prevents any of these then the dreaded arm-crank is also an option! I’ll do all of these activities but my favourite is aqua-jogging, which is especially good as it almost identically mimics the running action but without the impact meaning you keep reminding your muscles how to run! However doing battle with either kids trying to dive-bomb you or elderly people asking if you’d like swimming lessons can be a bit wearing!

Cycling is excellent for building leg strength which will really enhance your uphill running ability, it also my preferred activity as it can be done outside and being a lover of the trails and mountains you can off-road too. Just remember to stretch well after cycling as it’s easy to get really tight muscles.

2. Make a plan

Just because you are injured and can’t run doesn’t mean you have to tear up your training plan! Far from it. A plan focuses your attention and makes sure that you get as much from your cross-training as possible. If you are able to do more than one cross-training activity e.g. aqua-jog, swimming and cycling then schedule different activities across the week to maintain variety and motivation.

3. Never neglect strength and condition

Quite often an injury is a result of a weakness and you will be advised to undertake specific rehab exercises to address the cause. But in addition to this, a lay-off from running is the ideal time to really work on your core and any weaknesses that you know of. I know that I have poor glut function so focused a great deal on address this whilst being unable run. It is also a great time incorporate running drills into your training if you don’t already. As with aqua-jogging, running drills remind your muscles how to run efficiently and may also improve your technique and speed. Start out with walking drills and as the injury settles, gradually introduce more demanding exercises. Yoga and Pilates are also great not only for your physical well-being but also your mind, helping to relax and calm you when you are stressed from not being able to run!

4. Don’t be scared of intensity

If you simply ride your bike or swim up and down for hours on end you will maintain most of your aerobic fitness but to really get the most out of your cross-training make sure you do some sessions which are hard! The hardest thing to get back after an injury lay-off is your speed and power so schedule interval sessions into your plan. I’ve found that you can actually do more frequent, intense sessions cross-training than you can if you only run so look at doing a session every other day or so.

A particular favourite of mine is HIIT (High Intensity Intermittent Training) which has various guises but is basically very short periods of maximal effort (usually 10-30 seconds) with either very short (10 seconds) or very long (5 minutes) recovery e.g. Four minutes worth of 20s maximal effort with 10s recovery or 5 x 30s maximal effort with 4 minutes 30s recovery. These sessions are hard but really boost fitness and you can do them in the pool, on the cross-trainer, bike and/or the rower.

5. Feed the competitor in you

Many of us train to race and there is no reason that you can’t do that when you can’t run. This is one of the keys to maintaining my motivation during cross-training. If I know I have a race entered, even though it’s not running, I want to do the best I can so cross-train hard and this ultimately pays off in running later. I’ve taken to entering cycle races when I’m injured. Time trials and hill climbs are great choices as would any other competitive sports. However, if you don’t want to race, setting a personal challenge is a good idea as it gives you a focus and a feeling of success when you achieve it.

6. Injured no more… be patient in your running comeback

If you have followed a dedicated plan of intense cross-training you will likely be very fit. However, your body will take time to adjust back to the impacts associated with running and the last thing you want to do is to have another enforced injury lay-off. Continue to cross-train hard and gradually introduce elements of running. Start with short intervals e.g. 5 x 30 seconds with 30 seconds walking in between and gradually increase this to minute intervals, 2 minute intervals, 5 minute intervals etc. Be patient and your hard work cross-training will pay-off. As you increase the volume of running you can do decrease the cross-training but keep the intense sessions in until you can start doing run interval sessions.

Being unable to do what we love, to simply go out and run, isn’t fun but if you see the time off from running as an opportunity to improve as a runner it will be a little more bearable. If you commit to, and engage fully in a cross-training plan with a positive attitude, you can become an even better runner.

Mary Wilkinson inov-8 blog. Terraclaw.

Doing what she does best, an injury-free Mary Wilkinson hitting the trails. Kit: Terraclaw 250, Race Elite Raceshell, Race Ultra 10.

One Response to Cross-Training: Top Tips For Injured Runners

  1. danenglund@live.com' Dan says:

    Great Article Mary, After I had a stroke out of no where a few years ago ( Had a hole in the heart). I had months of rehab and exercise similar as you’ve mentioned above, to get me back on the trails running. I couldn’t agree more with your article on strength and HIIT training. Thanks for the good read. Cheers, Dan

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