How Runners Can Get Fitter While Injured

There is never a good time to have a forced running break, but the timing of this one was frustrating.  I had just signed up for the Richmond marathon and was ready to ramp up my mileage in preparation for training.

Instead, I’ve been cross training for a month letting my tibial tendon recover from too much stress.  In the process, I have been determined to maintain as much running fitness as possible.

From the many articles and research I’ve read on this topic, I was surprised to learn that runners can actually improve their fitness while injured.  Some runners even come back to run pr’s!

Here are a few reasons why:

  1. You can get in more interval training due to the lower impact activities.
  2. Cross training strengthens the whole body which can lead to more overall power.
  3. You can focus on running specific strength training.

My first week, I focused on spinning and long walks, but it takes twice as long to walk the mileage that I had been running so I soon joined a gym to use the elliptical and pool.

Sprints and interval training can only be done once, maybe twice a week on a run without risking injury.  With the elliptical or aqua jogging, it can be more frequent. I’m aiming for at least 3 speed sessions each week.  Here are a few sample workouts:

Aqua Jogging Sprints (in deep water with a belt or dumbbells)

Warm up for 5-10 minutes.  “Sprint” for 2 minutes hard x 5 with 1 minute of easy running between.  Jog 5 minutes easy then repeat sprints.  Cool down.

Aqua Jogging 1200s

Warm up for 5-10 minutes of easy jogging in the water.  Run hard for 5 minutes, easy for 2 minutes x 4-5 rounds.  Cool down with 5 minutes of easy jogging.

*Note: Aqua jogging won’t necessarily be moving your legs as fast as you would on land because of the added resistance but you can get in a really good workout with minimal impact.

Elliptical Sprints

Warm up for 10-15 minutes on varied terrain (I like to choose random).  Sprint for 1 minute, run easy for 1 minute, x 10-12.  Cool down for 5-10 minutes.

Elliptical 400s

Warm up for 10-15 minutes.  Run as hard as you can for 2 minutes, jog easy for 1 minute x 5.  Jog for 5 minutes then repeat the intervals.  Cool down for 5-10 minutes.

Steady state “easy run”

Swimming or cycling are excellent options to replace the easy run.  You can get in a good aerobic workout and stay in fat burning mode while still working harder than you would on an easy run on land.  Rather than a 4-6 mile steady state run, swim for 45 minutes or bike for an hour with moderate resistance.  Swimming forces you to improve your breathing and works the whole body. Biking gives you a break from the running motion but can work the quads with a small incline.

Putting it all together

You still want to keep in mind the easy/hard principle.  To get the most from your exercise routine, your body needs easier days so it can absorb the work and repair itself.

To keep the hard days hard and the easy days easy, add strength on the sprint days and keep the steady state days at a lower intensity.

For a mock long run, bike, swim, hike, use the elliptical or do a combo of any of them for 2 hours total.

Sample week:

Monday: Sprints on the elliptical + ST

Tuesday: 45 minute steady swim

Wednesday: Aqua jogging sprints + ST

Thursday: 1 hour steady spin

Friday: Sprints on the elliptical + ST

Saturday: “Long run”- 1 hour elliptical, 1 hour spin

Sunday: rest

I’m combining a lot of these workout theories in my own cross training and will begin adding some running back in next week.  I feel fitter than ever in my overall fitness, although I realize my running specific fitness will have to catch up for a few weeks as I rebuild time on my feet again.

For more on how aqua jogging can maintain your running fitness, check out this article and additional pool workouts.

Runner’s World also has a 9 week plan for maintaining or improving fitness while injured.

Note: The activities that you are cleared to do will depend on your specific injury.

Have you ever taken time off from running and come back stronger?

After my first marathon, I had a stress reaction and took 10 weeks off! I ran my first 5k two weeks later and set prs in the half, 10k and 5k in the following months.

Do you worry about losing running fitness when injured?

I still do every time! But it always works out okay.  So far, I’ve always come back stronger.  Let’s see if we can say that again after this break!


23 thoughts on “How Runners Can Get Fitter While Injured

  1. I love how you dealt with the hand you were given and did not give up! I had a stress reaction in my knee about 2 months out from my first 50K. I started seeing a PT regularly and was given a lot of exercises and told not to run for one solid month. I tried aqua jogging a few times, but didn’t really like it. Instead, I used the stationary bike at the gym for my cardio. I’d do easy days, days with super resistance/huge hill climbs (to resemble my race course), and rolling hill days. I also started lifting and working on my core regularly. I ended up SO much stronger than I ever had been during all the years I’ve been running. I finished my 50K strong and was able to power up the steep climbs faster than I had hoped for. I really think getting injured turned out to be for the best. That was a year and a half ago and I still keep up with my core, lifting, and try to fit in cycling during the week. I just finished my first 50 mile trail race a few weeks ago and am so happy that I figured out a balanced way to train for my races!
    Jen Gregoris recently posted..Food for Thought. . .My Profile

    • What an inspiring story, Jen! I got into cycling the first time I was injured and felt it really improved my overall strength too. I’ve also kept it in my routine since, usually only once a week but I agree, the variety of training is so beneficial for runners to become more balanced and stronger overall.
      Laura recently posted..How Runners Can Get Fitter While InjuredMy Profile

  2. Despite logging tons of time doing other things besides running while out with my stress fracture, the first few runs back were extra tough. I gained strength and fitness in other areas which has helped me a ton though. And it’s reawakened my love of lifting heavier weights!
    Angela @ happy fit mama recently posted..16 Getting to Know Me ThingsMy Profile

  3. YES!!! I always come back from an injury stronger and faster. It’s so hard during the time off and you definitely have a few low points (will this ever heal?), but it’s such an exercise in patience and believing in yourself. I am a huge fan of aqua jogging – it works! Loved this post Laura and I have no doubt that you will come back and race Richmond strong. You have a great attitude and that will pay dividends in your journey. xoxox
    Natalie recently posted..Students Run LA 5k RecapMy Profile

  4. I was doing all of this after I ran the NJ marathon two years ago, in preparation for NYC. I didn’t PR NYC (I actually set it in NJ) but I was healthy and super strong! It doesn’t necessarily FEEL good mentally to cross train but it’s absolutely good for your body and you will definitely not lose any fitness. I also love how much research has been done to prove it 🙂
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  5. You are really doing great with keeping up your fitness! I definitely lost some of my motivation to cross train after being injured for so long. I love these workout ideas, especially the elliptical intervals!

    • It’s definitely hard to keep up a high level of intensity week after week, especially if there is no end goal. With only 4-5 weeks, it’s been easier for me… and I have the motivation of Richmond to help! I find creating a plan like this helps me too so it feels a bit more structured and “running-like”… but you’re doing a lot yourself!
      Laura recently posted..How Runners Can Get Fitter While InjuredMy Profile

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