Improve as a runner, without running
Running injuries are difficult: physically, mentally, and emotionally. While we go through all of the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance when injury strikes, perhaps the most challenging aspect of injuries to grapple with is the loss of hard earned fitness. After all, most of us have big dreams and goals that help us get out of bed in the morning or lace up the shoes after a long day at work. Of course, there are many other reasons why we run, but time and fitness goals are unequivocally an important part of this crazy hobby and lifestyle. Detraining while healing an injury can be demoralizing, frustrating, and just plain annoying. But, what if we saw the opportunity in injury? What if there are plenty of ways to improve as a runner, without running?
Not so fast: first, grieve the injury. All of the negative thoughts and feelings are completely justified, and skipping over them can have a big impact on the recovery process as a whole. It’s also important to remember that the gains you made prior to injury are not completely lost. You still put in that work and your body adapted to new stressors, which will improve the efficiency of adapting again in the future.
When you’re ready, it’s time to get to work, and use the downtime from running to propel you to your best running yet.
1. Strength Training
Periods of less (or no) running volume is a great time to establish a sustainable strength routine. Most injuries are conducive to strength training, with some adaptations to accommodate painful areas or movements, and of course including the exercises prescribed to you by your PT. Strength training helps to improve tissue resiliency, correct muscle imbalances, and increase power production for faster and healthier running. There are less drawbacks to muscle soreness induced by resistance training when you aren’t running as much or as intensely, so this is a great time to challenge yourself in the gym.
While running never involves twisting yourself into a human pretzel like some yoga poses, runners can benefit from the mobility, balance, and strength imparted by a good yoga flow. Moving in different ways is crucial to maintaining range of motion and muscle function over that range of motion, and yoga fits this bill perfectly. Standing and single leg poses are running-specific and can help with single leg body control. Personally, I used yoga as one of my cross training activities while I was injured a few years ago. Initially my inner competitor kicked and screamed about not being even remotely close to the “best” in the room. In fact, I was probably close to the worst. I quickly learned that yoga is not really about being “good” at anything at all, which was a refreshing reprieve from mile splits and race times. The yogi community is extremely inviting and non-judgemental, and it really doesn’t matter if you aren’t decked out head to toe in Lululemon. Of course the pandemic has made attending in-person classes difficult, but there are plenty of great remote and Youtube options!
3. Running form and efficiency
One of my favorite PT puns and "Dad jokes" is that our running form is the “gaitkeeer” to injury. By analyzing one’s gait, we can deduce muscle weakness, coordination deficits, and patterns that may be leading to increased stress on certain tissues. Changing run form can seem intimidating, but it’s really more of a “tweak” than a “total overhaul”. Small changes and cues are not only easier to incorporate, but also extremely effective and can even result in increased speed. At Precision gait analysis is a cornerstone of our treatment, and we use that information to craft a treatment plan and cues that help to correct problematic patterns. The gradual build up of run volume following injury is a great time to practice and incorporate form changes.
4. Mental strength
The deletion of running from the daily rhythm brought on by injury can trigger a reflection on the role that running plays in our lives. Reconnecting with the “why” behind running can help soften the blow of fitness loss and create a sense of deeper purpose. External motives: race times, competitiveness, body image, etc. are all flames that are quick to burn out. Longevity in the sport is dependent upon the resilient smoldering of health, joy, and purity.
These are all things that can be incorporated at any time, but refocusing during injury is crucial to maintaining motivation and hope for healthy days on the run. Self-efficacy and forward progress is key to getting back to what you love, and you might even be stronger than before!
Keep going, you got this!
Kacy Seynders, PT, DPT, OCS