By Jessica O'Connell, MSc, CSEP-CEP, OLY
I get asked questions about cross training all the time, unfortunately because I have more experience than most at trying to maintain fitness during a period of injury. Case-in-point: In the year before the Olympics, I had FIVE injuries requiring anywhere from a week to five months of amended training. During these periods, it was absolutely critical that I maintained the running fitness I had built as best as I could, and I'm happy to share my tips and tricks with you.
Cross training can be a fitness-saver during an injury, but it can also be a refreshing switch-up during the off-season or wintertime when running is less appealing than normal.
First off, what is cross training? I'd call it any form of aerobic exercise that isn't your primary activity, done for the purpose of improving your performance. Sometimes people cross train to add more aerobic work to their week without additional pavement pounding, while other times it's a necessity due to injury, which is what I'll focus on in the post.
Without further adieu,
Jess's No-Nonsense Cross Training Tips for World Domination
1. Pick a good cross-training activity! This will depend on what you have available, the nature of your injury, and your personal preferences, but most use a bike, elliptical, pool, or anti-gravity treadmill if you are lucky enough to have access. The more similar the exercise is to running, the better as that will help preserve motor patterns and work sport-specific muscles. That said, when I'm off for a long time I like to switch up the machines I use, both for the sake of boredom and to create new training stimuli.
2. Lots of intervals. When cross training for an extended period, I mimic a regular training schedule with hard and easy days built into my weekly cycle. However, I like to toss in a few extra intervals because recovery time is much shorter when exercising without impact, and doing intervals helps to keep boredom at bay. Even during "easy" bikes or pool runs, I do a few 60 second pick-ups every once in a while to help keep myself focused rather than just floating.
3. Re-think how you quantify effort. I make all of my workouts time and effort based while cross training, as it's difficult to quantify exertion while using a new machine. For example, my favourite water running workout is 1-2-3-4-5-5-4-3-2-1 minutes hard, with 1 minute recovery in between (with a warm up and cool down).
Using a heart rate monitor is a great way to monitor effort as well, though most won't work in real time in a pool.
4. Be creative. Think out of the box to optimize your workouts. For example, I always water run with compression socks on! This looks pretty odd, but it holds my ankles more steady so that they don't flop and get sore, and makes the activity a bit more difficult.
5. Don't expect a smooth return after a long injury. In my experience, returning to running after a long layoff feels discouraging and awkward. Many times I've wondered if I've lost "all" of my fitness, in spite of logging hours and hours in the gym. This feeling normally persists for a week or so, and then I often find that I'm right back to where I was before the injury. It takes time for your body to "remember" how to run, and expecting a bit of an initial rough patch can help to ease the transition back.
6. Respect your body and trust yourself. It's important to work hard during a layoff, but your #1 priority should be to allow your body to mend. If a cross training activity aggravates something, don't do it! Cross training can be exhausting, and it is definitely possible to overdue it. No need to train like a marathoner if you are a miler! Trust that you will work hard during cross training sessions, but also respect that your body needs energy to heal, and workouts should be done with purpose.
7. Know that this is temporary. When running is taken away from me, I'm always reminded of how much I love it. Most injuries are temporary, and they provide a refreshing dose of perspective.
Injuries are scary, but they don't have to be season-ending. Altering yes, but not ending. I've run some of my best races after a bit of adversity, and there is no reason why the same wouldn't be true for you!
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