When a runner gets injured, the rollercoaster of withdrawals can be the equivalent of a romantic breakup. You ardently want to understand the cause, grip to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and are willing to do anything to ensure that the heartache never happens again.
Unfortunately, the bane of a runner’s reality is the likelihood that, at some point, a twinge or niggle could become something worse. Somewhere between 30 and 75 percent of runners are hurt annually, according to a study from Harvard Medical School and the National Running institute. Runners fall in love with the sport for all sorts of personal reasons from camaraderie and fitness to mental clarity. So, when the unthinkable happens, nothing else seems able to replicate the enjoyment that’s felt through a run.
One bit of encouraging news though is that evidence now shows that the elusive “runner’s high” isn’t solely gained via running. According to research from the University of Heidelberg, the sensation is mostly caused by endocannabinoids: natural chemicals that are released in the brain during a regular, sustained exercise routine at a moderate intensity.
Meaning, while you’re stuck skipping your runs, you can take advantage of other cardio activities for a feel good boost. Also, as taboo as it sounds, experiencing an injury can be used as an opportunity to improve your physical strength and running ability in the long haul.
Spotlight your weaknesses by not running
The majority of injuries among runners are due to overuse—in other words, damage and pain that’s caused by the repetitive movement of running—rather than the aftermath of an acute or traumatic impact, according to Orthopedic Clinical Specialist Tami Struessel, an Assistant Professor in the Physical Therapy Program at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.
During a runner’s rehabilitation, performing other endurance hobbies can highlight physical discrepancies—such as one ankle being weaker than the other—and help to correct training errors.
“Everyone’s body is individualized. The first thing I do with an injured runner is look at how that person moves,” says Personal Trainer Josh Rossi, a certified strength and conditioning coach based in Rochester, New York. Rossi earned a Wellness Management degree at Oswego State University of New York and moved to Seattle where he spent years designing strength programs for mountain guides and rock climbers. When he moved back to New York in 2010, his specialization with outdoor athletes translated well to trail and road runners. To date, he has coached close to 3,000 clients.
Many of the injured runners Rossi works with, including a mountain runner who couldn’t do a squat or balance on one leg for 10 seconds, are victims of the SAID principal: Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands. The body adapts to any routine, and too narrow of a focus on a sport isn’t the best preventative measure for avoiding injuries long-term.
“If flexibility or strength is not enough in certain areas of the body—due to a training error or an underlying muscle imbalance—and there’s a high repetition of the activity, then that motion will irritate various tissues and lead to an overuse injury,” Struessel explains. Run-of-the-mill training mistakes include accelerating a training program too quickly, running on angled or hard surfaces, or not wearing shoes that fit properly.
Once a runner’s imbalances are identified and corrected the body’s overall power and resilience will increase, and so will the person’s likelihood of running injury-free.
Fix your injuries and boost your mood through fitness
After you and your medical professional determine the root cause of your injury, then you can determine the best modalities to help you start sweating your way to becoming a stronger, more balanced runner without exacerbating your injury.
“If you’re injured, it’s a phenomenal time to try something new, because there’s no expectation. When you are a beginner with an open mind you can see a lot of progress in a new activity,” says Rossi. And when we focus on the gains, we’re happier overall.
When you start focusing on what you can do, you may be surprised at all of your options.
Rossi and Struessel recommend the following options to enhance overall fitness. And who knows, you may discover a way to tap into a runner’s high in the process!
Weight lifting helps core and hip strength and reinforces good posture, which corrects running form. It is also quantifiable, which means stat obsessed runners can track their weekly progress and see measurable gains.
Rock climbing teaches mobility, balance, foot and ankle strength, and flexibility. If the idea of roping in and having a climbing partner is too much for you, head to your nearest climbing gym to try bouldering. You get the same benefits as climbing, no partner or harness required.
Hiking at a consistent pace enhances overall strength, mobility for the hips, and is less impactful than running. It also teaches foot and ankle awareness that helps runners navigate technical features on the trails.
While the subtle movements may seem easy at first, Pilates is actually a good way to improve core strength.
Nordic or Uphill Skiing
If you have snow, go play in it! Nordic and uphill skiing and snowshoeing are effective, lower impact ways to work on aerobic fitness.
Not only will hitting the mat improve flexibility, it can help to identify other weaknesses and imbalances in the body.