Back on Track: The Ultimate Cross-Training Blueprint for Injured Runners

by | May 22, 2024 | Run, Running Training Insights, Sports, Training

Read on for the ultimate cross-training blueprint for injured runners.

Injuries are an all too familiar and unwelcome companion, capable of stopping even the most dedicated athletes in their tracks. Although injuries vary, they share a common outcome: hindering progress and, at times halting running for a set duration altogether. Managing an injury ranges from heartbreak, frustration, defeat, anger, and disappointment, to relief, it’s a humbling process and one that brings you to your knees, literally. 

The litany of potential injuries can leave even the most seasoned runner feeling vulnerable. Yet, amidst the frustration and setbacks, lies an opportunity for growth and an epic comeback story. 

When faced with an injury, you can either succumb to the temptation of defeatism, allowing the setback to sideline ambitions or embrace the challenge as a catalyst for improvement.  In exploring the types of training while injured, we uncover not only the potential for rehabilitation but also the capacity for a stronger, more sustainable running return. 

Devon Coetzee – biokineticist – from Beyond Performance, sheds light on the transformative power of cross-training in navigating and preventing running-related injuries.

The Ultimate Cross-Training Blueprint For Injured Runners
PC: The Movement Centre Muizenberg (JMENIERE)

“When it comes to cross-training,” Devon begins, “one size does not fit all. It’s crucial to align your cross-training modalities with your specific running objectives.” He emphasises the importance of understanding the nature of your running endeavours, whether short, sharp distances or endurance-focused races, to determine the most effective cross-training approach.

For runners focusing on shorter distances, such as 5 km or 10 km, Devon recommends incorporating high-intensity activities that mirror the metabolic demands of this type of running training. “Think intervals on a bike or swimming,” he suggests. “These activities stimulate the appropriate metabolic pathways that one’s running would do, offering a similar level of intensity without the impact associated with running.” 

Whereas, for those tackling longer distances like marathons and ultras, Devon advocates for cross-training methods that replicate the sustained effort and metabolic pathways of endurance running. “Cycling emerges as a standout option,” he notes, as “it allows for extended periods of aerobic activity;” ensuring that “when you do get back into running, the metabolic side of training has been covered!”

What Sets Effective Cross-Training Apart?

According to Devon, the key lies in its low-impact nature. “One of the primary culprits behind running injuries is high impact,” he explains. “Cross-training presents an opportunity to engage in activities like cycling, swimming, or paddling, which offer fitness benefits without subjecting your joints to excessive stress.”

Benefits of Cross-Training

  • Cross-training aims to 1) replicate running’s metabolic pathways while 2) reducing impact so that one can continue training without impeding the injury. 
  • Cross-training holds immense importance for runners as injuries pose complex recovery challenges, often with uncertain recovery timelines – “it’s like asking how long is a piece of string? We sadly just don’t know,” says Devon. Finding a sustainable activity that brings enjoyment, fostering consistency and motivation beyond mere necessity is important.

Devon underscores that the benefits of cross-training extend far beyond injury rehabilitation. “Cross-training isn’t just a temporary fix,” he emphasises. “It’s a strategic approach to maintaining fitness, promoting healing, and preventing future injuries.”

Central to cross-training is the concept of tendon health — a cornerstone of longevity and resilience in running. “Tendons require a delicate balance of loading, a Goldilocks amount to be precise.” Devon explains “that both too much or too little load can result in issues. While too much can cause or aggravate an injury, equally too little causes this reloading effect, where tendons become weaker and don’t maintain their strength.” 

Maintaining adequate tendon stimulation through cross-training, whether cycling, hiking, or strength work, is critical. Pausing your training to wait for injury recovery means “you won’t be loading those tendons appropriately;” and ultimately serves as a counterintuitive approach, as “you will lose a lot of fitness simply because you’re just not training.”

Cross Training vs Rest

Current research and literature increasingly advocate for movement, loading, and strengthening of injured areas rather than immobilisation. Rest is rarely prescribed nowadays, highlighting the shift towards active recovery strategies. 

By maintaining base fitness through cross-training, runners can seamlessly reintegrate into running without rebuilding their fitness from square one. The emphasis shifts towards developing impact-specific strength, streamlining the return to full running capacity. When it comes to cross training, there are two ways of looking at cross-training: 

  • Cross training to replace running when you’re injured. 
  • Then there’s cross-training to complement your running to avoid injury.

“The one mistake that people make when they are NOT injured and are just using crossing training to complement their running, is that they pour the same amount of effort and intensity in their cross training as they do their running.” This means that “ultimately they are getting a double load of intensity, which can often lead to injury because the load is too high.” 

This can result in excessive strain and heightened injury risk due to the compounded intensity load. Effective cross-training should prioritise the development of aerobic and sometimes anaerobic fitness while minimising impact to safeguard joint health. By striking this balance, cross-training can effectively enhance overall fitness without imposing additional stress on the body.

Another common mistake made with cross-training is attempting to mirror one’s previous running training schedule with their chosen cross-training activity, whether it be swimming or cycling. Devon emphasises the importance of avoiding such pitfalls in cross-training, particularly in managing intensity and duration. 

Attempting to directly mimic running workouts with activities like swimming or cycling can lead to discrepancies in load and intensity. For instance, swimming for an hour imposes a higher and more strenuous demand compared to running for an hour. Similarly, cycling at 75% threshold for 45 minutes cannot replicate a run at 75% threshold for 45 minutes. What is required is an adjustment to the duration of your cross-training activities to achieve equivalent training effects. Devon highlights the limitations of attempting to replicate running programs through cross-training, underscoring the need for a tailored approach to maximise effectiveness and minimise injury risk.

The Ultimate Cross-Training Blueprint For Injured Runners
PC: Asics

3 Different Types Of Cross-Training For Runners

1. Cycling

Cycling stands out as an exemplary form of cross-training due to its remarkably low-impact nature. Unlike many sports and exercises, a lengthy four-hour cycling session doesn’t leave you feeling excessively fatigued the next day. This is particularly advantageous for runners as it allows for sustained energy expenditure without imposing heavy strain on the body. 

Despite differences in movement patterns and impact, cycling offers a metabolic load similar to running, fostering aerobic endurance and efficient energy production through the burning of carbohydrates and fats over extended durations. 

With its gentle impact, cycling serves as an ideal tool for building and maintaining an aerobic base, making it highly recommended for all runners.

2. Swimming

Similarly, swimming presents as a fantastic cross-training option thanks to its minimal impact and unique hypoxic environment. By necessitating limited oxygen intake – often requiring swimmers to hold their breath for a significant portion of the time – swimming enhances metabolic turnover, facilitating efficient energy production while operating aerobically. 

This combination of low-impact movement and metabolic stimulation makes swimming an invaluable addition to any runner’s training regimen.

3. Strength Training

Strength training emerges as another essential component of cross-training – “it is non-negotiable!” Devon maintains that “strength is as important as running to be a good runner!” and he says that  “the best runners in the world only excel in competitions because they are doing all the other stuff to get there. They don’t just run!” 

One of Devon’s golden rules is when a runner says they don’t have time to do strength work, he strongly suggests dropping a run for a strength session instead. “Strength doesn’t necessarily have to be high-intensity stuff that gets your heart rate through the roof. A lot of stability, a lot of control, a lot of neuromuscular movement work, teaching the body how to move well, learning correct movement patterns, and building strength, mobility and stability simultaneously.” 

The three pillars that are essential to work on include strength, stability and mobility. “If you’re doing various movements that tackle these three things, you’re setting yourself up for success and a long-running career,” says Devon. 

The Ultimate Cross-Training Blueprint For Injured Runners
PC: The Movement Centre Muizenberg (JMENIERE)

In closing, the path to full recovery or rather injury prevention lies not in rigid formulas, but in listening to your body and responding accordingly. Cross-training emerges as a solid option for preserving fitness levels while facilitating injury recovery. 

This approach ensures that when returning to running, you’re not hindered by either injury or fitness limitations; rather, the focus shifts to reacquainting yourself with impact tolerance. It stands out as a dynamic and effective solution, offering a path to healing and progress beyond mere rest and recovery.

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