Current statistics show that upwards of 85% of runners will sustain an injury each year. Most of that research defines “injury” as pain – or even actual tissue damage – that keeps a runner off the roads for a week or more. That means that ALMOST ALL runners will, at some point in their career, be forced to miss training days due to pain or tissue dysfunction.
I’m not sure if running injuries can ever be truly and fully prevented. We know that there are ways to reduce risk – stay tuned for a post later this month – but currently, injuries are bound to happen to most runners out there.
Trust me, I know what it feels like to not be able to lace up your shoes and bound out the door every morning. I’ve been there MANY times. You’re frustrated, angry, and left without an outlet for your energy. But, there’s good news! There are very VERY few times when total rest is necessary – including post-operatively. Sitting on your butt “resting” is not really going to help you heal, at least not past a certain point, and there is almost always some kind of movement or exercise you can do while you can’t run. In fact, you SHOULD be continuing to exercise and move in order to heal your injury, fix the causative factors (strength, endurance, training load, motor control, etc), and facilitate a smooth return to running. Here, I’ll talk about various ways to exercise during injury recovery and which might be the best choices based on the type of injury you have and where you are in the rehab process.
Why it’s great: You’re completely non-weightbearing which means much less stress on your joints! Swimming also requires you to focus on your breathing, which can translate over to better oxygen use while running. These are typically not workouts that runners are accustomed to doing, so the difficulty factor is high and you will need to spend less time on it to get the same aerobic benefits as you would running. It lengthens the body and forces you to use all of your muscles synergistically. And pool running is a lot like running – just as difficult – but without the impact
The Downside: There really aren’t any. Just be careful you don’t slip and fall on the pool deck.
Avoid Swimming if…
-You are immediately post-op. Open wounds + public pool = way worse problems than your running injury. Do not swim until your physician clears you.
-You have hip flexor tendinitis. The kicking motion will only make this worse. You can pull but, again, if you’re not used to using your upper body you will have to be wary of doing too much of this
*if you have a LE injury where swimming is painful, you can pull. If you have an upper extremity injury, you can use a kickboard. Either way, be careful not to overdo it – you don’t want an injury on top of an injury.
Why it’s great: you can maintain and build endurance without any impact load on your joints. You can use a stationary bike, a spin bike, or even better, a road bike which lets you get outside, just like you would with running.
The downsides: It’s a completely different motion and body position than running, so ease into it. If you’re used to running for an hour every day, you shouldn’t start with an hour of cycling. Start small and build up your volume to reduce the risk of injury (yes….you can injure yourself while cross-training). Additionally, when you’re riding outside, there will be periods (like downhills) where you’re not pedaling, so you may need to spend more time on the bicycle than you would running to get the same aerobic training time.
Considerations: Make sure you adjust the bicycle correctly, especially if your running injury is in the low back, forefoot, ankle, or
Avoid cycling altogether if you have:
-Hip Impingement with flexion (cycling requires a large hip flexion range of motion, so be careful here)
-A spinal or pelvic stress fracture (you will not be absorbing impact shock, per say, but sitting on the seat will be weightbearing through the fracture site)
-A new lower limb stress fracture that is painful with cycling (you are weightbearing a little bit on the bike – make sure you’re healed enough to tolerate it and let pain be your guide)
Why it’s great: It’s not, really. Of all your cross-training options, this is likely the least helpful…unless it’s what you enjoy. It does sort of mimic the motion of running…ish? and it’s a good way to progress aerobic exercise in weightbearing.
Downsides: If you are a short female, the elliptical is not built for you! It is very common for your feet to go numb, but that’s not a good thing. It doesn’t really mimic running all that well, and it doesn’t burn a ton of calories. It does provide some weightbearing force.
Avoid the Elliptical If….
-you have an early stage stress fracture that precludes weighbearing
-you are early post-op
(wait for your PT or physician to clear you for the elliptical if you have either of these injuries)
Why it’s great: The stairmaster facilitates hip extension – aka your glutes, which are commonly weak and commonly implicated in running injury – so it can be a great tool for runners. It’s also super difficult, so you can get a great workout in a pretty short amount of time.
The Downsides: It’s….super difficult. It’s also indoors, which sucks for most runners. The impact on the stairmaster is about 2x your body weight – not quite that of running (5x), but not zero either.
Avoid the Starimaster if you….
-Have a stress fracture, especially in the early stages. This is likely too much impact
-have gluteal tendinopathy. this will likely flair it up
Why it’s great: Never underestimate the power of walking! Yes, it may take longer to cover ground than you would while running, but you burn the same amount of calories every mile. It’s also far less impact on running but most closely approximates the motion. Bonus points for hiking: the uphill and downhill provide an extra challenge to the glutes and quads, respectively.
The Downside: It is weightbearing. If you can’t bear weight, then walking is likely not a good option for you.
Avoid Walking If…
-As above: if you have a stress fracture or are post-op and can’t bear weight.
Why it’s great: It corrects the weaknesses that likely got you injured in the first place, and might prevent future running injuries! It also improves your muscular endurance, muscular strength, and power output which leads to better performance. Additionally, it builds lean mass, which helps you burn more calories throughout the day.
The downsides: There truly are none. Don’t drop weights on your feet. Make sure you learn the techniques of the lifts before loading them.
Avoid Strength Training If:
Don’t. Everyone should lift. No it won’t make you bulky.
Why it’s great: Provides an aerobic training stimulus while also training muscle power and tolerance to impact shock. All runners, when rehabbing an injury, should progress through some plyometrics before returning to regular running. If you’re in PT for your injury, let your physio guide you as to when you can start and what types of jumping and landing you can do. If you’re rehabbing on your own, make sure you’re able to squat your body weight (NSCA guidelines) and tolerate about an hour of walking (Chris Johnson) without changes in your symptoms before you begin plyometrics.
Avoid Plyometrics if:
-you are in the early stages of an injury
-You are still having pain
-You have not met the squat and walking criteria listed above
-You are not sure what you’re doing.
*side note – I don’t mean to single out specific programs, but P90x and BBG workouts are very plyometric-heavy. These are great workouts – just NOT when you’re injured!
Stay active, and if your pain doesn’t subside in a week or so, see a physical therapist!