How to keep training when injury stops you running
As a runner there is nothing more frustrating than when you can’t run. Over the course of my running career, there have been many times when injury has kept me from doing what I love most.
I have been running competitively for 38 years and working in sports clinics for nearly 25 years. During this time, I have had seven ankle fractures; two ankle operations; two knee arthroscopies and a ruptured calf muscle – just to name a few. So I personally understand the devastation runners feel when told they cant run.
My experience of having sustained these injuries has helped me to develop practical and reliable treatment and rehabilitation plans that help runners return to running as soon as possible.
While some medical practitioners will tell runners to rest for 6-weeks and take anti-inflammatory medication, my aim as a running physio is to do everything possible to help runners keep training whilst they establish the root cause of their injury and start a proactive rehabilitation program.
In some cases an injury will be bad enough to require a period of rest from running. Even if that is the case, there will be a number of training options that are possible which help to mimic running, strengthen the relevant muscles, and help to speed up your recovery.
Not all of these activities are suitable or available to everyone, but I recommend you try as many of them as you can so that you can find something that helps you maintain your hard earned fitness and your sanity!
1. Pool Running
Also known as aqua jogging, this is one of the most accessible and effective cross-training methods for runners sidelined by injury. This low-impact yet high-resistance exercise is an excellent way to engage the same group of muscles used when running. It is harder to keep the same posture and maintain the same cadence (steps per minute) when pool running, but because it closely mimics the movement pattern of running, it provides a great cardio workout and helps maintain most of your running-specific muscles.
I recommend you use a flotation belt for pool running as this will help to keep you high enough in the water. Ideally you should be in the deep end of a pool where you can't touch the bottom.
Pool running can also be an excellent addition to an overall training plan, whether you're injured or not, as it reduces the impact on your joints and allows additional training with minimal risk.
2. AlterG Anti-Gravity Treadmill
This futuristic treadmill has revolutionised running rehabilitation in recent years. It works by partially suspending you off the running belt, which allows you to run at a lower effective body weight. The AlterG is actually running, so technically speaking it isn't cross-training, but by reducing your body weight it takes a lot of stress off any injured muscles, tendons or bones allowing you to return to training much sooner than usual. A session on the AlterG isn't cheap though, with the average price of using one being around $1 per minute.
3. Stair Walking
Depending on your injury, a great way to build strength and rehabilitate your body back from injury, without the impact forces of running, is stair walking. The stair walking motion strengthens your quads, glutes and hamstrings, and it gives your heart and lungs an excellent workout. Stair walking will help to provide some of the endorphins and mental satisfaction you would normally get from a run, making it an excellent option for your mental health.
4. Walk/Run Intervals
If you are struggling to run for 20-30 minutes without experiencing a pain or niggle , then a good alternative is to run for a minute, walk for a minute and repeat this quite a few times. The regular walking breaks can make a huge difference as they let your muscles relax, and will often allow you to be out on your feet for a much greater overall time.
Some people will be able to move through the levels in the table faster than others. It will depend on the nature and severity of your injury. This approach will gently ease you back into running, while still giving you the mental satisfaction of getting outdoors and making progress with your recovery.
Ideally you should combine this return to running with some strength, stability and stretching. A good body maintenance routine will help you build a stable core and muscle strength to avoid the injury reoccurring. Learn more about how to approach your body maintenance
5. Create a "Back Up" Option
You might not get the same satisfaction and "love" from a cross-training session as you do from running, but learning to love (or at least like) another sport can be beneficial. Try integrating some cycling, swimming, or perhaps a gym class into your regular training routine so that you have something to fall back on if you have a niggle that is hampering your running.
6. Avoid High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
If you are returning from injury you should avoid high intensity interval training. There are plenty of activities you can do to get your heart rate up, but the high-impact jumping, landing and sprinting that is a feature of HIIT training is hard on your body and is therefore more likely to stir up any running related niggles.
If you are ready to start returning to running, I recommend you check out our 10 week return to running program
Following a structured return to running program will help avoid re-injury and get you back to a full training load as soon as possible.
7. Daily Morning Stretching Ritual
As a general rule of thumb, runners have stiff and tight bodies compared to the general population. Running is a very repetitive action through a fairly limited range of movement, and as a result your lower backs, hips, knees and ankles all become stiffer over time . . . . . unless you do something about it.
This is even more applicable when you are injured.
Depending on your injury, I recommend doing this 3 minute morning stretching ritual everyday.
8. Monitor your pain
When returning to running following injury, the best guideline to keep you from going backwards in your recovery is pain. Returning to running following an injury doesn’t need to be completely pain-free, but it shouldn’t make an injury feel worse or create any new niggles. The last thing you want to do is stir up your pain by over-training too early. When you start back running, closely monitor your pain level. If it is slight and doesn’t feel worse the day after a run, then you should be safe to gradually increase your training – but take it slowly.When returning to running following injury, the best guideline to keep you from going backwards in your recovery is pain.
Our interval schedule is a great way to safely reintroduce running and monitor your pain level.
Stop injuries before they happen
If you have suffered a running-related injury, you need to see a health care professional who can help you establish the root cause of your problem rather than just treat the symptoms.
Choose a healthcare practitioner who is actually a runner, as they will have a much better understanding of the loads and stresses involved.
The single biggest factor that causes injuries in runners is doing too much too soon. The second biggest factor is your biomechanics (running technique). If you improve your running technique, you are therefore less likely to get injured.
In our Return to Running Program, we teach and demonstrate the principles of good running technique which will help you to adapt your running form accordingly.
A running-specific biomechanical assessment can be a real eye-opener. Something as simple as a stiff ankle or a tight hamstring for example, can change the way you move. A proper biomechanical screening test will help to identify any potential problem areas in your body, allowing you to focus your rehabilitation plan on sorting them out.
So if you have been bouncing from injury to injury, check out our 10 week guide on how to safely return to running. I guarantee this will help to get you back to the sport you love as soon as possible with much less chance of sustaining further injuries.