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Cross-Training 101: Avoiding Overtraining When Injured

The proper balance of quality and quantity is key when developing a cross-training program.

The proper balance of quality and quantity is key when developing a cross-training program. 

Getting injured while injured sounds a bit paradoxical, doesn’t it? However, taking on an over-zealous approach to cross-training can wind up leaving you hurting in other ways and even end up hampering your return back to running. Quite the opposite of what any of us wants to achieve, but combine the Type-A runner personality with the channeled anger of a running injury and falling into this trap is easier than you may think.

RELATED: Injury Prevention’s Big Bang Theory

Psychology Of The Injured Runner

When you’re taken out of the season early, left lame just before your big race, or injured at any time for that matter, it burns. The first emotion is usually disappointment, followed shortly by anger or downright rage. “In college I bought a punching bag to vent frustrations,” confesses professional runner and 2008 Olympian, Amy Yoder Begley.

Those feelings can manifest into the burning desire to do everything possible to speed the recovery process along while maintaining as much fitness as possible. The logic behind many an injured runner’s thought process is that when one is able to start running again, they’ll have limited the margin of how much catching up they have to do. Sometimes though, this cross-training and rehab formula winds up being anything but logical; runners do have a way to rationalize doing things they know aren’t really the smartest decisions.

Doing more for the sake of doing more can be the first snafu; the balance of quality versus quantity needs to be addressed.  More time logged on a particular machine doesn’t always equate to better training, as it’s still possible to overtrain even if you’re not running. If your cross-training regime is so taxing that you’re not recovering between workouts then you’re only digging yourself deeper into a hole. Be aware of the same signs of over-fatigue you’d experience in running and make the necessary adjustments if you start heading down that road. It’s possible to dig yourself out, and you’ll want to do so sooner rather than later.

“You can dig yourself out by not digging!” states coach Jay Johnson. “Don’t try to maintain your volume, lower your intensity, get a blood chemistry, hydrate…the problem is [patience]; most runners don’t have the patience to dig themselves out of the hold of fatigue.”

Advice From The Top

Just how should you go about creating a cross-training program that works?

“I have tried two different approaches to cross-training programs while injured. My advice is different for different injuries,” explains Yoder Begley. “If it will be a short recovery time for the injury, the training program will be more intense. A long injury recovery time will have a more relaxed approach.”

This is sound reasoning, as with a shorter hiatus it’s possible to be a bit more aggressive, but trying to maintain that same level of exertion can be depleting over a longer period of time. Also, with an injury that takes longer to heal, by the time you do get back to running your cardiovascular fitness may be ahead of your legs. “My heart and lungs were strong and ready but the legs couldn’t keep up,” said Yoder Begley. “I pushed past what my leg muscles and joints could handle and ended up with another injury.”

The Injured Runner 101

You need to know your cross-training options but you also need to know how they differ from actual running as well. Nothing will be able to mimic running exactly, and depending on your cross-training activity you will be working and relying upon different muscles more than you’re used to.

Take the hip flexors for example. These smaller muscles are engaged when you run but you stress them much more if you’re using the elliptical or aqua-jogging. Bombarding these muscles too much too fast can result in hip flexor pulls or strains. Be careful about increasing the amount of time spent doing either of these; instead, gradually build up time just as you would with upping your running miles.

RELATED: What kinds of cross-training are best for runners?

The bike is another common cross-training option but if you don’t know how to properly adjust yourself on it you’re headed for disaster. Riding with an incorrect position can lead to hip and knee problems. A quick tip is remembering that when seated and extending a leg on the pedal, you want that leg’s knee bent 25-35 degrees. To avoid knee injuries, ensure that the distance between the seat and the handlebars is correct; when you put both pedals level the knee closest to the front should be directly over the middle of the pedal.

Traditional pool swimming, not aqua-jogging, is another alternative exercise option, but one needs to be familiar with how to swim with a proper stroke. This is especially true if you are a runner that hasn’t done much core or upper body strengthening and your arms, back, and shoulder muscles may be rather weak.

Keep in mind that nothing will simulate running exactly and each cross-training exercise has its limiting factors. For this reason it’s wise to mix up which machines and workouts you do; this also helps out with the obvious mental burnout that can occur.

Cross-training can seem like the bane of the injured runner, but done smartly, it will infinitely improve your transition back to running. You’d be surprised at how well you can retain your level of fitness and bounce back. The key is devising a cross-training program with the proper balance of quality and quantity, not unlike you do with your running program.


About The Author:

Caitlin Chock set the then National High School 5k Record (15:52.88) in 2004. Still an avid runner, she works as a freelance writer and artist.