When people ask me what I do to stay fit, I reply “it depends on the season.” Participating in a variety of sports not only keeps all my muscle groups working, but also it stimulates my mind. It gives me the confidence to experience new adventures, push myself just that little bit further into that zone in which I’m not so comfortable, and then I discover something new about myself.
By working a variety of muscles you prevent overuse and overtraining injury. A good example is someone who is a “pure runner.” You know those people. It is all they do. They are proud that they run every day, rain or shine. The problem is that generally only the leg muscles are firing when you are running; your quads, hamstrings, calf muscles. Many other muscles are called upon to work as well, but those are the prime movers.
These folks frequently come to me in my business, Rehab to Racing, with some type of injury. They have been to their physician who has told them to quit running. “Just give it a month.” The majority of athletes won’t accept that. For someone who works out nearly every day, being told to stop won’t work. If this athlete has been cross training, supplementing the road running with biking, swimming, strength training, pool running or other sports, then the idea of not running for a time is not so devastating. Cross training on a regular basis also may lead to a lower risk of injury, but I am amazed at how many athletes don’t cross train and are clueless what to do next when there are so many great options…
CYCLING. Injured runners can almost always ride a bike without pain. If you don’t own a bike, then you can ride the stationary bike in the gym. Just be sure your seat is high enough that when your foot is at the 6 o’clock position, your knee is nearly straight. That will help prevent further knee pain. Boring? Yes. But, put on some good music and rock it! You will get your cardio conditioning and keep your legs strong at the same time. And, science has shown that biking improves your running, but running does not improve your biking. Good to know, right?
SWIMMING. How about getting wet? If you swim, get some small fins called “Zoomers” and do kick laps. Do them on your back, then on your side and then if you don’t have back problems, use a kickboard and kick on your stomach. Your legs will get a workout, definitely.
WATER RUNNING. Don’t like to swim? Well, wash an old pair of running shoes, grab your swim suit and head to the pool for some water running. Get into water about waist deep. Run forward, backward and side-to side. Take big steps, take small, fast steps. If it doesn’t hurt, hop forward, hop backward. If you want to work your arms at the same time, put on some hand paddles or swim gloves and move your arms underwater as you run. You can do all the same drills you do on land, in the water. The great thing about water is that each movement is resisted by the water. Be creative. The harder you work, the more the water pushes back on you. Don’t be surprised if you are exhausted in 30 minutes. The support of the water also often allows the injured to exercise without any pain while they have a chance to heal.
SNOW SHOEING. Do you have snow on the ground? Borrow or rent snowshoes and poles. You will get a thorough aerobic workout (especially if you use poles) and there is no impact. I have been recovering from a very serious injury to my leg for the past 13 months and snow shoeing has been a major part of my rehab. Even when I could only walk a mile or so, I could snow shoe for several hours. If you think you are really fit, try running in snow shoes. Let me know how that goes for you.
STRENGTH TRAINING. Supplement the cardio workouts with some strength training. Get into a Pilates or Yoga class. The combination of strength and flexibility is excellent for your core muscles as well as your arms and legs.
KAYAKING. If you have water nearby, get in a kayak. Paddling will give you a core workout that is tough to beat. (Read Tamara’s article on kayaking.) And, it is always good to be outside!
INJURY PREVENTION FOR RUNNERS
In addition to working with my athlete to find substitute activities, I will evaluate her gait pattern to discover what might be causing the injury. Very often there is a biomechanical cause. For example, running injuries are often due to the impact force on your legs with each step. If you are a heel strike runner, that is, the first thing to hit the ground is your heel, then the forces that are transmitted up through your foot, ankle, knee, hip and back can be 3-4x your body weight with each step. Now, multiply that by how many steps your take during your run. (WOW!) In addition, each time your heel hits the ground, you are “putting on the brakes” and have to generate significant force to bring your body up and over your leg to get the next leg on the ground. So, not only are the impact forces working against you but also there is a huge energy expenditure and muscular force required just to get from one step to the next.
I evaluate my client’s gait pattern on the treadmill. When I see this “heel strike” gait, she will almost always have a long stride and slow cadence. Cadence is how fast your legs turn over. Think of it this way: the Road Runner cartoon character has a very fast cadence (remember how his legs went so fast you couldn’t see them?) Now think of how a giraffe runs. His legs move much slower and his stride length is MUCH longer. So, he has a slow cadence, even though both animals are going at the same speed. I work with audible metronome to help my client increase her cadence to ~90+. She will have to shorten her stride length and come off her heels to more of a “mid-foot strike.” When she does that, she is able to hear how much less impact there is with each step. And, very often, she is able to run without pain for the first time in a long time, with this new gait pattern. Increasing your cadence can decrease impact forces as much as 30-50%.
It is not easy to change your gait pattern. It takes work and concentration, but if it allows you to run without discomfort, it is worth it to most athletes. If any impact running is too uncomfortable, then it is time to look at some of the alternatives above, at least temporarily.
Cross training is essential for injury prevention and total body fitness. But, it also opens new horizons. It increases your confidence. When your friend says “let’s try surfing” or your daughter says “let’s sign up for the local sprint triathlon,” you can do it! And never discount the feeling when you hear your husband bragging about what a great athlete you are. Got to love hearing, “Oh sure, my wife does that!”