Cross Training and Injury Prevention

Mary DeLaneyWhen 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…

Happy Athletic CoupleCYCLING. 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!


Mary DeLaneyIn 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!”

anne marie

February 17, 2010 at 9:33 pm

so glad you’re talking about gait and cadence. Tapping into increasing my cadence has been my new running secret (shhhh!;-) I am a new runner from it!

Suzie Cooney from Maui

February 19, 2010 at 10:25 am

Aloha Mary,

I really enjoyed reading about this topic. Your advice was top knotch and I like that you offered so many solutions during recovery. It’s very hard to hold an athlete back even temporarily. The cross training component is always important to allow the other parts to recover.

Thank you again. I’ll be marking this article as a great reference for my clients.

Suzie Cooney

Aimee Gallo

February 20, 2010 at 7:10 pm


Fantastic article! I love the comparison of the roadrunner and the giraffe. I will be sure to use it with my clients.
I can personally vouch for cycling having a notable impact on my running. I’ve become much faster without having to force myself to do track workouts. (which I never did anyway!) It’s my latest Ace up the sleeve and I’m absolutely sold on it.

I can’t wait to hear more from you!

Aimee Gallo


March 19, 2010 at 6:53 am

thanks for the info. i usually do strength training and it gives me a better workout rather than doing cardio. i do cardio 2 times a week only.


March 19, 2010 at 7:35 am

You are most welcom! It is always a good idea to vary your routine! Not only does it keep you fresh and interested, but also it works a variety of muscle groups. Keep working out!

Catherine Dickson

March 20, 2010 at 6:23 pm

You are sooo inspirational Mary! Love the photo above of you in action. I am totally dedicated as you are to staying active…I’ve been sidelined a few times, and have climbed back into what I love—step by step, stretch by stretch, etc. Anyone whose been injured knows the difficulty of the injury itself, let alone the added challenge it offers to getting back.

Rest assured that you will return with a newfound energy and perhaps passion for what you love to do actively. Cross training is a perfect vehicle of action to regain full recovery. It offers a smart approach that keeps you strong, interested, happy and moving. Never give up, whatever you want is yours to have…I can attest to that and more together with many smiles along the way and wonderful people to boot!!!

Thank you for sharing Mary! I’d like to hear more from you as well!!


March 21, 2010 at 7:33 am

Catherine, thanks for the encouragement! You are so right that it is step by step and day by day when recovering from an injury or other ailment or loss. I find I really have to look at the big picture and see how far I have come, because on a day to day basis, progress often seems stagnant.

And, I truly believe that only when you have been in the deepest depths can you fully appreciate the highest heights! It is family and friends like you who have supported and encouraged me along the way, that have made my journey possible.

Thanks for reading our Chi blog!!

Catherine Dickson

March 21, 2010 at 2:59 pm

Thank you Mary for being you!! Really, to think you are 57 going strong fully inspires me incredibly!! You have no idea!!! I’m all smiles. 🙂

I’m 48 and know two other people along with you who train avidly, stay very active, week in and week out. And to think my audience here where I live is relatively large. All the reason, I say, to keep on–keeping on. Being fit is ageless.

Yet, what’s most important is that people like you and I are out there reaching people who can grab a hold of our positive energy, enthusiasm, and inspiration in making it theirs for better health and well-being that lasts a lifetime. For me, there’s nothing better than that in my mind!

Athleta has a ‘keen’ sense of its chosen athletes who truly share a gift(s) to inspire and more which is soo-o wonderfully remarkable and touching to me!

Again, thank you Mary. Keep up the amazing things you are doing daily in helping others and know that you are appreciated across the miles. 🙂

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