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How to Train When You Can’t Run

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Three times during my 30+ years as a runner I have had an injury so serious that I couldn’t run. In addition to the physical pain, it is discouraging to be injured, which is why continuing to train in some manner helps ease those feelings of discouragement and helplessness. Even if you can’t run, you can train in other ways and focus on other muscle groups while your legs heal.

The Power of the Pool

After coming off a disappointing cross country season my senior year of college, I was looking forward to redeeming myself during spring track. I had qualified for nationals during my sophomore and junior years (in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters respectively) and I had every reason to believe I would end my season similarly.

On a fairly hilly run, very early in the season, I felt something pop in my knee. I knew it probably wasn’t a good sign but I managed to run back to campus and wasn’t in a terrible amount of pain so thought it was nothing serious.

After sitting at a desk for a couple of hours, when I stood up to head home, I could barely walk. The injury was more serious than I thought and an orthopedist diagnosed severe IT band sprain.

I’m a little fuzzy on whether physical therapy was prescribed or not and who suggested getting in the pool. But, I was given a key to the college pool and instead of going to practice every day, I worked out in the pool.

I can swim but I’m not a swimmer so I was limited to laps with a kickboard, treading water and running in the pool. This was before aqua vests or aqua shoes so I ran in the shallow end of the pool for what seemed like hours a day, so much so that I developed blisters on the balls of my feet from the friction.

Finally, in May, my coach and I decided that I should try to run. My focus was to try to qualify for nationals in the 10,000 meters. It took me two meets to do it and although I still had a low level of discomfort in the IT band, my aerobic capacity and breathing were fine. Although I didn’t run a PR at nationals, I managed to finish sixth, earning All-American honors for the third consecutive year. Power to the pool!

If you can swim, doing laps in the pool is a great way to rehab. Swimming is no-impact, can minimize any loss in range of motion, improves circulation, lessens inflammation and maintains (and sometimes even increases) aerobic capacity.

For swimmers and non-swimmers, deep water running also is a great option. During deep water running—also called aqua running—you wear a flotation belt that keeps your upper body above water level.

Swimming and aqua running are particularly beneficial for joint injuries or replacements and spinal injuries. In addition to swimming and aqua running, there are other aqua therapy methods, such as Ai Chi and Bad Ragaz Ring, which can be used to continue your training. Some involve specific exercises designed to mobilize and strengthen the injured area.

Your orthopedist may prescribe a course of aqua therapy as part of rehab, which should be supervised by a physical therapist or more specifically, an aquatic physical therapist.

Pedal Power

After my other two leg injuries (torsion fractures of the tibia and fibula repaired with plates and screws and most recently, a meniscus tear), I hopped on my bike. I didn’t ride the roads, however. My mountain bike is on a wind trainer that I move around the house depending on where I want to ride—basement in winter, garage in the rain or outside on the deck in pleasant weather.

I don’t recommend riding on roads if you are rehabbing from an injury as the risk of falling/crashing is greater and you will need to negotiate traffic which can add an extra level of stress. If you are lucky enough to live near a park with bike trails or a rail-to-trail where traffic is not permitted, those are better choices.

If you are cleared to bike, the benefits of cycling as rehabilitation are numerous.

By adjusting the gears, you can control the level of resistance. When starting out, I used the least amount of resistance possible and geared up as my injured leg became stronger.

Eventually, I worked up to interval workouts on the bike. After a slow, easy warm-up, I rode for a certain number of minutes hard, followed by a recovery of a fixed amount of minutes. I began with something like one minute hard-two minutes easy and then increased the intervals in time and resistance as my injury healed.

Adding a bike computer (speedometer/odometer) allowed me to easily incorporate threshold workouts into my training. Again starting with a slow, easy warm-up, I then maintained a consistent speed for a certain number of minutes…say, 20 minutes at 10 miles per hour to start. Again, I increased speed and resistance over the course of my rehab.

The ability to do intervals and tempo work kept my aerobic capacity high so that when I transitioned back to running, I had lost little in lung capacity.

In addition, on the days that I went for an easy ride, which I liken to the equivalent of an LSD run, I sometimes added an upper-body component with light dumbbells, doing bicep curls, hammer curls, etc. or even just pumping my arms like I was running.

Other Rehab Options

Ellipticals can provide good low-impact cardio workouts if you are cleared for it. They provide balance while permitting mobility and range of motion and because they engage the arms, they provide a total-body workout as well. And because you can adjust the resistance, you can begin with a low setting and then progress to greater resistance as you become stronger.

Although it doesn’t offer much in the way of an aerobic workout, yoga can help your rehab progress. Because you often are holding yourself in certain postures—lunges in Warrior 1 and Warrior 2 for example—every muscle in that group is working, which helps counteract muscle imbalances. Yoga can help you regain balance, stability, and strength, focus your breathing, and the mental component can help relax you and ease stress and tension.

The Mental Aspect of Injury

The mental component of being injured should not be overlooked. Depending on your injury and how it occurred, you may find yourself suffering from mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, disordered eating or substance abuse. Continual pain, limited mobility and lingering doubt about returning to your previous activity level all play into what might be a very fragile state of mind.

This is even more reason to get moving once you are cleared to do so. Even small steps toward regaining your fitness level give you a sense of control over your body, which may have vanished at the outset of your injury. Progress, no matter how small and in what form, can help counteract those negative feelings. Apply the same work ethic and competitive spirit that you applied to your sport to your rehab and your journey on the comeback trail may be shortened. And who knows…maybe the activity you used for rehab will find a permanent place in your fitness regimen even once you are back to running.