How to keep training when injury stops you running

As a runner there’s probably nothing more frustrating than when you can’t run. Over the course of my running career, there have been several times when injury has kept me from doing what I love most.

I have been competitively running for 32 years and working in sports clinics for over 20 years. During this time, I have had seven ankle fractures; two ankle operations; a knee arthroscopy 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 stop training, I try to do everything possible to help them get to the start line, because if they get there then they’ll cross the finish line.

Depending on the injury, there are activities runners can do to mimic running, strengthen the relevant muscles, and help to speed up their recovery. Not all of these are for everyone, but I recommend you give them a try and find something that helps you keep your hard earned fitness and sanity!

1. Pool running

Also known as aqua jogging, it is one of the most effective cross-training methods for runners sidelined by injury. Green says this low-impact yet high-resistance exercise is an excellent way to engage the same group of muscles used when running. “It’s harder to keep the same posture or 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.”

You can purchase a running belt to keep you in an upright position and work in some drills to keep you focused. By adding in some variations like one minute maximum pace or tabata drills it can help keep you focused.

2. AlterG anti-gravity treadmill

This space-like treadmill has revolutionised medical rehabilitation in recent years. Its unweighting technology allows injured athletes to start running again through reducing gravity’s impact by selecting any weight between 20 to 100 per cent of your body weight by one per cent increments.  The AlterG is the next best thing to running, without putting more stress on injured muscles or bones.  A session on the AlterG isn’t cheap though, with the average price being $1 per minute.

The AlterG anti-gravity treadmill allows injured athletes to start running again through reducing gravity's impact.

The AlterG anti-gravity treadmill allows injured athletes to start running again through reducing gravity’s impact.

3. Stair walking

Depending on the injury, a great way to build strength and rehabilitate your body back from injury and into running again is stair walking. The plyometric motion strengthens the same muscles as lunges and squats, helps to improve balance, and taxes your lungs and heart as you power to the top.

4. Walk and run

If you’re used to going for runs that last longer than 30 minutes, but are too injured to do this, then a good alternative is to lightly jog for say five minutes and walk for 20 minutes. This ratio of running to walking depends on the severity of your injury. I recommend following this interval table to structure your return to running.

Some people will be able to move through these levels 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 getting the mental satisfaction of getting outdoors and making progress with your recovery.

Ideally you want to combine this with some body strength, stability and stretching, I call this Body Maintenance. Proper Body Maintenance 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. Replace one love with another

It might be hard to love two things equally, but try replacing running with another sport you enjoy such as swimming or cycling. “The reason people run is usually because they get more of a high from running than they do from any other form of exercise,” says Green. “If runners are injured then they should replace running with something that is just as enjoyable, yet still gives them a decent workout, so that it’s sustainable.”

6. Avoid High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)

If you’re returning from injury avoid high intensity interval training unless it’s all non-impact exercise such as boxing. 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 is the worst thing you can do.

If you are ready to start introducing some running to your training, I recommend you check out this 10 week return to running program

7. Monitor the 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 the pain by over training too early. When you start back running, closely monitor the pain level and if it’s slight and doesn’t get worse the day after, then gradually increase your training – but take it slow.

This interval schedule is a great way to safely reintroduce running and monitor your pain level.

8. Stop injuries before they happen

If you’ve been injured it’s worthwhile seeing a physiotherapist, podiatrist or running technique coach to help get to the bottom of why you got injured in the first place. 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 factor is the way people run, so if you can improve the way you run you’re less likely to get injured.

Having a biomechanical assessment to see how the body moves when you run can be a real eye-opener for runners.  A screening helps to anticipate any potential problem areas in the body, and gives runners practical advice on how to adjust their running technique and what exercises they should be doing to reduce the likelihood of injury dashing their running dreams.”

The Body Mechanic have helped thousands of runners return from injury and achieve their running goals.  If you are getting ready to Return To running after injury, we recommend you follow this simple structured guide.

To ensure your injury doesn’t return, you also need to implement a good body maintenance routine of stretches and exercises which are appropriate to your specific injury.

We highly recommend this 3 minute morning stretch ritual.  Do this simple 3 minute routine everyday for 30 days and I guarantee you will notice a difference in your flexibility.

We also recommend you check out the 10 minute essential core workout for runners. This is a great way to start improving your stability and core strength to help avoid future injuries.

For those in Sydney, The Body Mechanic runs Strength and Stability Classes every Monday and Wednesday in North Sydney, as well as Running Assessments. Running Assessments are a great way to identify any weaknesses in your form and get a plan to correct them.


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