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Training While Injured

I have a very distinct memory of my high school coach pronouncing “Running is not pain free” at the start of the cross country season one year. What he was trying to impress on the new runners was that training for endurance athletics is fundamentally an uncomfortable process. He was also pretty fond of saying it takes a special kind of stupid to be and endurance athlete because of said discomfort, and we keep coming back for more the next day.

Unfortunately, many runners would take this to mean that they will and should get injured in the course of training. It’s going to happen, so just accept it and move on. How many times have you seen someone finish a hard workout or race with an injury? How many times have you done a hard workout while nursing a minor (or major) injury? Runners are notorious for training through injury and congratulating others when they soldier on and are “tough” for finishing. Even when we know we should take time off. We keep running anyway. And while this can sometimes work, it’s very rarely the most productive thing we could be doing. Now, a caveat before we go any further: I’m working from the assumption that we’re running and training with the intent to get as good as possible, to improve as much as possible.

It’s really common for endurance athletes (especially us boneheaded runners) to try to train through an injury. We’re afraid we’ll lose fitness. The training plan says we have to get this particular workout in. The calendar gods must be obeyed. Fundamentally we come up with a lot of excuses to get the hormonal dump of feel-good drugs our body produces while training because we addicted to them. Sometimes, the workout we want isn’t the one we need.

If we start from the standpoint of the purpose of training is to get fitter, than obviously our training needs to change with our body. If we’re in better shape than expected, than we probably need to go longer, harder, faster, etc. to keep improving (note: this isn’t always the best idea). But if we’re not in as good of shape as we initially planned for when the training plan was sketched out 3 months ago, then we need to adjust it. Needless to say, an injury drastically reduces our fitness.

The good news is we can normally keep training when we manage to pick up a minor injury. But we do need to change how we train. Depending on the type of injury, we may need to just take it easy for a few days and not do any hard or long efforts (many overuse injuries). We may need do get on the bike or in the pool to reduce the amount of force from impact (shin splints, stress fractures, some strains). We might have to stay on a more stable surface if we’re dealing with a stability injury (i.e. sprained ankle).

Fraser doing a fartlek workout on the bike after almost breaking his tibia mountain biking. This guy was putting up some serious watts and REALLY high rpms in a controlled environment that allowed him to work without having to absorb impact forces with his tibia.

The important thing to note is that the goal of any particular training session is probably going to change. If we had some high power intervals planned, we might need to break that up into a bike workout (to get the metabolic power side of the equation), along with some careful lifting (to get the strength component). Most running workouts can be safely translated to the bike or the pool (either swimming or aqua-jogging) by simply converting the workout to time. We all know how fast we can expect to do a specific workout, set of repeats, or long run. Simply translate that to the same amount of time at that given effort level. 400 meter repeats? How about 60-75 second sprints on the bike? Long run? Try 90 minutes of running in the deep end of the pool (just be sure to grab the flotation belt). Threshold intervals? Super easy on the bike or the rower, and you get the bonus of being able to see the watts you’re producing which can help you keep the effort in the right zone once you dial it in! Whatever modality you’re using to get the translated workout in, be sure to watch your heart rate.

Is it going to be different? Yes. Can you just go nuts and not think about mechanics? No. Is it as good as the “real thing” if we aren’t injured? Probably not. Specificity is a thing. But it’s a heck of a lot closer than not doing the workout. Barring the problem being overtraining syndrome, we can and probably should keep training at the normal intensity. Or as close to it as we can. Because the most important part of the puzzle for endurance athletes is the metabolic side of training, we can keep training that even if we need to not stress the structural integrity of our tissues. I promise, you can get a lot of quality work in on a bike or in the pool without beating up your legs. There’s no reason why you can’t get that two hour long “run” in on the bike. Just be sure you have a comfortable saddle if you’re not used to it and keep the effort level at about the same you would have for the run.

Assuming you do take the time “off” to heal up from an injury be sure to address the root cause of the injury. Most injuries suffered by endurance athletes are overuse injuries. So if you don’t address the root cause, you’re just going to get injured again and miss out on even more progress that you could have made. It might be as “simple” as fixing your mechanics. It might require changing things up so the training plan includes more cross training and strength and conditioning. If all you do is one type of exercise (i.e. only run), chances are pretty good that you’re going to end up with some kind of imbalance in your strength or your mobility that will result in injury with enough reps (i.e. miles).

The other side of the equation is to take a look at your recovery. You can do the best training in the world, but if you aren’t fueling appropriately, getting enough sleep, or skimping on the recovery workouts, you can only handle so much training load before something breaks. The better you are at recovering, the more training load (i.e. intensity and/or volume) you can handle.

Mark and Katie doing a ladder workout in the pool. It's not uncommon for me to get the whole Ruston team into the pool on recovery weeks, especially during more intense training blocks.

So go ahead and try mixing it up the next time you’ve got a niggle that you know better than to run through. Get on the bike. Get in the pool. Hit the weight room. You may even figure out a new way to take your running to the next level by incorporating something in the “normal” training plan that keeps you injury free or performing even better!

Note: if you are suffering from actual factual overtraining syndrome, then you really do need some time off. Sleep. Eat. No hard or long workouts until you’re cleared by a doctor. Breakdown training is dumb. Destroying your metabolism isn’t going to help you race faster. I promise.

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