Can't Run Due to Injury? What Next?

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Stationary bike workouts.

Unfortunately, injuries are part of the game for runners. Various studies have the percentage of all runners getting injured every year at between 30% and 75%.

Both experienced and novice runners can have injuries, including overuse issues such as doing too many miles per week or going too fast (sprinting). There are also accidental sprains, twists and pulls.

Face it: Running hurts, and many of us have a love/hate relationship with it. Most people in the military would probably not run if they did not have to pass a fitness test every six months while serving.

What happens if you have a short time before you have to ace a fitness test, but you are injured and cannot run? What do you do?

Legs and Lungs

Your lungs and your legs are the two main areas that get worked when you run. When you cannot run, my first recommendation is to get on the bike if your injury allows it. I prefer stationary bikes, spin classes or Peloton workouts when forced to cross-train due to sprains, shin splints or muscle strains.

You may have issues with biking if you have more serious injuries where any impact hurts (bone breaks, stress fractures, upper leg muscle injuries, severe knee tendonitis). But as you start to recover from the trauma of the injury, you may find that biking is the first step to running and can even work the legs and lungs to a point where you may come back even faster when you start running again. But you have to work hard on the bike to get your heart rate as high or higher than your fastest running pace.

Try the Bike Pyramid:

One favorite bike workout that personally saved me from injury when rejoining training was the Bike Pyramid. You do this workout for 39 minutes with the following levels and make a 1-20-1 bike pyramid.

Each minute is a level of the resistance scale starting with level 1: 1 minute; level 2: 1 minute; level 3: 1 minute … work your way up to level 20 on the resistance scale and try to keep the bike in between the 70-90 RPM range.

When you start, you may not be able to get up that high, but set it as a goal and get after it. This workout, done every day for 3-4 weeks during an injury rehab, actually helped me come back faster than pre-injury.

Swim Option (Run, Swim, Swim with Fins Progression)

If you can get into the pool and swim, do so. You may find, however, that ankle sprains and swimming do not mix, as the water will cause small movements of the ankle that will not be helpful with healing and can cause serious pain.

Stress-related injuries manage well in the water. Many people will swim laps without fins or run in the water (both deep end and shallow end) to keep their legs and lungs working optimally. Once you are able to wear fins without pain (ankles, knee tendons, hips, muscle pulls), you will have another option for leg days to make swimming more leg movement focused.

However, once you are able to swim with fins, you should be just about ready to start on your running program again. Swim hard for the time it takes you to run your timed run, then catch your breath with aqua-jogging or treading water for 5-10 minutes. Repeat that cycle until you have been in the water for 30-45 minutes. That makes for a good workout when you cannot run.

Other Non-Impact Cardio Options

Elliptical, rowing, stair stepping and skating all have an element of load bearing but still allow for no impact. These are great for shins splints and later stages of stress fractures and joint tendonitis issues that often occur when running.

The idea that you can increase the weight on certain joints and bones and still have no impact forces during the healing process makes these options valuable for many almost ready to run again. Doing pyramids, Tabata intervals (20-second sprint followed by 10 seconds easy) and timed run distance time trials (go hard for the time it takes you to run your timed run) several times in a workout -- capping the cardio workout at 30-40 minutes total -- is one of the many ways to implement these options into the post-injury/pre-running training cycle.

Personally, I still like to run, but warming up well and cooling down with some form of non-impact cardio for 5-10 minutes is a helpful way to loosen tight muscles and joints after running workouts. Also running every other day with non-impact cardio activities as the cardio of choice is a good option as you rebuild your running or want to cross-train with a reduced statistical chance of getting injured in the first place. As we age, consider the cross-training model of running every other day with non-impact cardio in between; your joints will thank you for it.

-- Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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