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How to Cross-Train Through Injury

2016/7/21 10:47:18

Injuries are inevitable in the life of the endurance athlete. When they happen they are painful, debilitating, and frustrating. The most frustrating part of being injured is knowing that your hard-earned fitness is deteriorating while you take time off from training to heal. In fact, this frustration can be so great that athletes are often unwilling to take time off or tempted into resuming training too soon. Consequently, injuries become worse or last longer than they should.

More: 10 Tips for Injury-Free Running

One way to prevent this sort of self-sabotage is to choose a favorite go-to cross-training activity that you can switch to whenever an injury makes normal training impossible or unwise. Having such a fallback option greatly reduces the temptation to train normally when you should not because it enables you to preserve fitness even when you are hurt.

The best alternatives to your primary sport discipline are those that are most similar to it. For example, activities such as swimming and rowing are not great alternatives to running because, while they stimulate the cardiovascular system, they are arm-dominant versus leg-dominant movements. Following are the best two activities for "training through" cycling, running, and swimming injuries.

Whichever cross-training activity you choose to pursue while recovering from an injury in your primary sport discipline, try to replicate your main sport workouts as closely as possible in terms of frequency, intensity, and duration. This will serve to minimize fitness losses during the period of convalescence.

More: 10 Tips to Recover Faster

Cycling Alternatives

Indoor/Recumbent Cycling

Among the most common cycling injuries are low back pain, tendonitis of the knee, and collarbone fractures suffered in falls. While low back pain and knee tendonitis make normal outdoor riding painful, it is often possible to ride pain free on a recumbent indoor bike at low resistance levels despite these injuries. Since recumbent cycling still involves pedaling, it is an effective way to maintain cycling fitness even when outdoor riding is not possible.

During his 2009 comeback season, Lance Armstrong suffered a collarbone fracture in a race crash. Four months later he still managed to finish third at the Tour de France. How? He trained hard on an indoor bike trainer for four weeks while his collarbone healed and thereby kept his fitness from plummeting. The only modification he had to make was sitting upright with his arms off the handlebars to keep pressure off the healing bone. May you never experience a similar injury--but if you do, follow Lance's example.

More: How Indoor Workouts Can Help You on Your Runs

Slide Boarding

Ice-skating and inline skating are quad-dominant aerobic activities like cycling, hence good alternatives to normal training for the injured cyclist. But it's not always easy to find good places to skate, so the next time you have an injury that takes you off the bike, consider doing what many skaters do for cross-training: slide boarding.

A slide board is a flat sheet of plastic that you slide back and forth on while wearing fabric booties to simulate a skating action indoors. Physiologically it is almost identical to ice- and inline skating, but you can do it in the comfort of your own living room. Quality slide boards such as the Goaler One start at around $250.

Running Alternatives

Steep Uphill Treadmill Walking

Research has shown that the human brain uses exactly the same motor pattern to run or walk briskly on steep uphill gradients. In other words, when you crank the treadmill incline up to 12-15 percent, running becomes walking and walking becomes running. Therefore, walking on a steep incline is a highly specific way to maintain running fitness when you're injured. But impact forces are reduced drastically compared to running, so steep uphill walking is possible with most common running injuries.

Many runners don't think of walking as a good alternative to running when injured because they assume they cannot match their normal intensity. Trust me: You can. Set the incline at 12 to 15 percent, increase the belt speed to 4 mph or so, check your heart rate and you'll see!


Bicycling may seem less running specific than other running alternatives such as pool running, but a lot of noteworthy runners have used it with great success. For example, in 2004, Meb Keflezighi relied heavily on bike training to build fitness for the New York City Marathon because of injury troubles. He still managed to finish second.

Swimming Alternatives

Modified Swimming

The most common swimming injury is shoulder impingement syndrome. This injury typically causes pain during the recovery phase of the arm cycle in freestyle swimming (when the arm is overhead). Thus it makes normal freestyle swimming difficult or impossible, but it does not have to force you out of the pool altogether. Despite having pain in one shoulder you may still be able to perform modified swim workouts that include technique drills, kicking drills, single-arm freestyle swimming, and alternative-stroke (e.g. breaststroke) swimming.


Machine rowing is an upper body-dominant aerobic activity like swimming, and therefore a good cross-training alternative for the injured swimmer. Because rowing does not involve overhead arm movements, swimmers suffering from shoulder impingement syndrome can usually row pain free.

More: 4 Cross-Training Activities for Runners

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