What is the Best Cross Training for Your Running Injury?
One of the most fiercely debated topics in distance running is the effectiveness of cross training for runners.
As is typically the case with heated debate, the pendulum often ends up swinging far in either direction.
Some modern coaches believe that with today’s runners, much of the traditional high mileage should be replaced with cross training as this will reduce the risk of impact related injury.
Other coaches stick firmly to their guns in the belief that there is no comparable cardio without running, and cross training is a waste of time. If you want to know how to become a better runner, all you need to do is to go out and run more.
If there is one time when most parties agree that it does make sense for a runner to cross train, it’s when the runner is recovering from running injuries.
In these circumstances, using one of the alternatives to running is not only part of the graded rehabilitation program, but it can also help maintain fitness levels for when you are able to run again.
If it is done properly, it can help keep you positive and motivated, a hugely important factor when it comes to recovery and preventing injured runner depression.
If your injury allows you to continue running at reduced frequency, intensity or duration then fantastic, but with the extra time you are now going to have let’s find you a low impact exercise for running injury that will keep you fit!
What is the Best Cross Training for Runners?
Much of the argument that revolves around what alternatives to running for cardio (if any) a non-injured runner should do as part of his/her training is down to the training principle of specificity.
This principle reminds us that when we train our body to do a particular task, the body gets better at that specific task but there isn’t necessarily much of a carry over for other tasks.
However much you argue the case for cross training, it’s important to remember that the best training for runners will always be running.
This has been demonstrated in research by comparing improvements in VO2max (maximal oxygen uptake – a measure of endurance performance) following an eight week period of treadmill sessions compared to the same period of stationary cycling sessions (Pechar et al. 1974).
The treadmill group saw their VO2max on a treadmill increase by 6.8% whereas the cyclists saw their treadmill VO2max by only 2.6%.
In other words, if you’re aerobically fit, you can improve running performance, but due to the training principle of specificity, by far less than actual running did.
Efficient, economic running is achieved by your body becoming a master at using the right muscles at the right time and being able to maintain that specific sequence of movements over the target period of time.
You might be wondering:
How can I run faster?
The only way to achieve this is practicing the movement.
Cross training can help get you fit, while allowing the body to have a running-related rest, but overdoing it can potentially lead to an ‘undoing’ of the running movement you have worked so hard to improve.
Does biking help running?
Think about this:
Cycling is essentially a quad related movement.
Bike workouts for injured runners build up and strengthen the use of the thigh muscles, which is great if you are training for a cycling event, but if you are looking at cycling vs running, a runners movement patterns depend on efficient glute and hamstring recruitment.
What are Good Alternatives to Running if You are Easily Injured?
If you often wonder:
What if I am injury prone?
If I devote some of my time to cycling, I know that although I may not run faster than the person logging more miles on their feet, at least I can stay injury free running less miles.
The jury is still out and there are plenty of articles online examining the pros and cons.
What is generally agreed upon is as you approach the mid to latter stages of race preparation, it is a good idea to reduce/remove cross-training so that your mind and body can focus on getting fit for the specific demands of that race, not those of a different activity.
What is the Best Cross Training for Injured Runners?
So how about when we have no choice but to reduce running volume or maybe even stop running altogether for a while?
The law of specificity will still apply, which is why research shows such success with aqua jogging, but a new factor comes to play in activity selection.
We now have to find the best cross training workouts for runners by choosing an activity that will not delay recovery by aggravating the situation further.
In some cases, this may not be as obvious as it sounds.
With some types of runner injuries, particularly those involving some form of tendinopathy, we do not experience pain until after running, maybe not even until the next day.
How Can You Cross Train with Tendonitis (or Tendinopathy as it is more accurately referred to)?
Tendons are fantastic at handling tensile stress (tension whilst lengthening) an indeed most of the forward propulsion in running comes from tendons absorbing the ground forces when you land (whilst the tendons are lengthening) and then releasing it as they shorten.
This process is known as the stretch-shortening-cycle (SSC).
Tendonitis exercises to avoid or tendinopathy aggravating exercises include any explosive activities that provokes use of the SSC, e.g. skipping, hopping, jumping, and depending on level of irritation, running itself.
In these cases, non-explosive cross training activity is more suitable:
Walking or biking can be good cardio.
If you use a strength training for runners program, make sure your lifts are performed slow and controlled with no bouncing or sudden movement.
This is important:
When selecting alternatives to running while recovering from tendinopathy, you need to make sure you are not stretching the tendon or muscle it attaches to too much, especially when the stretch causes the tendon to become compressed against the bone it attaches to.
Although tendons are highly equipped to handle tensile stress, they are not so good at combining tension with compression, especially if already in a sensitised state due to injury.
Here are three common examples:
Best cross training for achilles tendon injuries
The Achilles tendon attaches the calf muscle group (gastrocnemius and soleus) to the heel bone (calcaneus).
In cases where the Achilles tendon has become irritated at the lower end where it inserts into the heel bone (insertional Achilles tendinopathy), any activity that requires the calves to stretch a certain amount can cause compression of the tendon against the heel bone, irritate it further and potentially delay recovery.
Cross-training activities to watch out for therefore include deep squats, deep lunges, heel drops over a step, rowing machine, push offs in the pool, burpees, mountain climbers, calf stretching.
Best cross training for hamstring injuries
The top (proximal) tendons of the hamstrings attach to the loops at the bottom of the pelvis (ischial tuberosity).
Proximal hamstring tendinopathy is where one of these tendons has become irritated by overload, and is characterised by a deep aching sensation in the buttock when sat down for extended periods of time.
We have a helpful article on how to rehab your hamstring tendinopathy, as well as a discussion of what has helped other runners.
The ache is due to the tendon being simultaneously lengthened and compressed against the ischial tuberosity bone, in a similar way to the Achilles tendon against the heel bone.
Any activity that involves stretching the hamstrings by moving the chest towards the knees can cause the hamstring tendon to become compressed against the bone, irritate it further and potentially delay recovery.
Cross-training activities to watch out for therefore include touching the toes, kicking, high knees, deep squats, deep lunges, high knee step climber, rowing, hamstring stretching.
Insertional Gluteal Tendinopathy
Insertional gluteal tendinopathy is where the tendon of the gluteus medius or minimus becomes irritated at the attachment point, i.e. the head (greater trochanter) of the thigh bone (femur).
It is characterised by pain on the top side of the thigh when pushing into the bone or crossing the legs, both of which cause compression of the tendon against the bone.
Any activity that involves stretching the glutes by pulling the symptomatic leg across the body can cause the gluteal tendon to become compressed against the greater trochanter, irritate it further and potentially delay recovery.
Cross-training activities to watch out for therefore include kicking across the body, crossing the legs, lying on the symptomatic side, leg adduction, leg abduction that allows the dominant leg to descend lower than the hips, cycling if your legs drift inwards, glute stretches.
Running can also delay recovery if the runner has what is known as a ‘hip drop’, e.g. if your left hip drops whilst standing on the right leg during running, the right gluteal tendon will become compressed against the head of the femur with each step you take.
What’s the bottom line?
Tendon compression is a good example of the need to monitor the appropriateness of your chosen cross-training activity not only on pain caused during the activity but also pain afterwards.
It can often take up to 24 hours for pain to be felt after aggravation of a tendon.
Doing a HIT class with two minutes of high knees may not bother a recovering proximal hamstring tendinopathy during the class itself but you may well know about it the next day.
In the case of tendinopathy, always check with a suitably experienced professional as to what cross-training activity to avoid in the early stages of recovery.
Cross Training for Other Running Injuries
Below are a few other examples of running related injuries in which choice of cross training needs careful consideration.
Bear in mind though that the goal of any rehab ladder is to eventually be able to perform the movement/exercise which initially caused the pain.
To achieve this, the level of demand needs increasing gradually as symptoms start getting better until you are once again able to jump up and down on one leg or do a high kick.
If you often wonder:
Why do i get injured so easily?
Failure to progress rehab in this way can cause your tolerance thresholds to remain low, meaning that even though your tissues heal you many never reach full recovery.
This is probably the number one reason for persistent niggles and re-injury.
Patellofemoral Pain Cross Training
Knee pain (commonly referred to as patellofemoral pain) can be down to various causes but in most cases you run the risk of worsening symptoms if you choose a cross-training activity that provokes even more stress at the knees, e.g. deep squats, deep lunges, knee extension machine, step climber.
What is the best cardio machine for bad knees?
Low resistance cycling should be ok (depending on the extent of injury and stage in rehab).
Ilotibial Band Syndrome Cross Training
The Iliotibial band (ITB) attaches proximally to the tensor fascia muscle on the side of the hip and distally down on the outer tibia (shin bone) below the knee.
In cases of pain in this area, activities that involve repeated opening and closing of the knee can aggravate issues (squats, lunges, running, cycling, breaststroke, etc).
Once again choice of cross-training activity needs to be monitored according to your stage in rehab.
Medial Tibial Stress Syndrome
The shin pain associated with Medial Tibial Stress Syndrome (often referred to as shin splints) is thought to be the result of too much repetitive impact travelling through the tibia (shin bone).
Rather than stimulating new bone growth (a benefit of running), the overstress has caused the outer layer of the bone to become irritated.
How to cross train with shin splints?
Any cross training activity that demands long periods of weight-bearing or further repetitive impact may be inappropriate and delay full recovery.
This can rule out quite a lot depending on the severity of the symptoms but generally swimming and cycling are fine.Great article from @RunnersConnect explaining what cross training to do for your specific injury Click To Tweet
How much cross training you should or shouldn’t do to improve your running is still a fiercely debated subject.
As always, one thing we can probably say in confidence is that the answer will depend much on the individual runner.
When recovering from injury, cross training ticks a lot of boxes: it facilitates an effective, graded rehabilitation program; it can help maintain current fitness levels; it can help you stay positive and motivated.
As far as what are some good cross-training workouts for runners? A lot depends on what type of injury you are recovering from.
Choosing inappropriately can cause aggravation of symptoms and delay recovery so it makes good sense to work closely with a running injury specialist to ensure that your return to running comes round as swiftly as possible.
Happy Cross Training!
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