Being injured sucks. I've been dealing with plantar fasciitis for the past 6 months now which means I haven't been running much at all. I've been told countless pieces of advise, tried countless remedies, been doing strengthening and mobility exercises with very little improvement, and it's incredible frustrating. I know people have run through this injury in the past, but with how my body was feeling I decided to take the super conservative approach and stop running altogether for a few months. This definitely was not an easy choice for me, but I would be lying if I said I wasn't already familiar with the cross training grind. I'd like to share some guidance and advice to anyone else who might be dealing with injury or any other setback in their training.
First off, let yourself be upset. Anybody who has dealt with an injury knows how crushing it can be when your training and racing plans get derailed. If I've hit a hard stop in my training from an injury, I typically allow myself 24 hours to be upset about it, then I pick myself up and continue forward. That's not to say you'll never be upset about it again. It will come in waves and some days you will be accepting of where you are while others you will be dramatically mourning the loss of your normal training regimen. Just remember to do the best you can with what you have been dealt in the present moment. No matter what your attitude is about the situation, everything that you do in this healing time will either positively or negatively impact your future return to running. Might as well build up those positive impacts.
How should I cross-train?
The most important component in distance running is your aerobic base. This is basically what trains your cardiovascular system to work in the most efficient way possible. Keeping this base up will allow for a much smoother return to running than if you take extended time completely away from aerobic exercise. The nice part about this is that your heart doesn't care what activity you are doing - all it cares about is how many beats per minute (bpm) it is performing. Because of this, there is a wide range of activities to choose from to cross train for running. A couple of the most common are biking, aqua jogging, and swimming, though other activities such as Nordic skiing, rowing, elliptical, high aerobic based weight room training, and the arm cycle (if you need to completely stabilize your lower limbs) are great options as well.
Mixing up cross training modalities is an excellent way to come back strong from an injury by working different muscle groups that are usually neglected in running. I recommend incorporating multiple different sports into your cross training routine which will help you strengthen your abilities as a more well-rounded athlete, ultimately helping to prevent future injuries as well. Consider combining activities that involve motion in different planes of movement. For example, biking and running are both very linear movements while skate skiing or a variety of strokes in swimming incorporate some lateral/rotational movement as well. These lateral and rotational movements help to increase mobility and strength in your more medial and lateral ligaments, tendons, and muscles, helping to increase stability in bigger limb movements involved in activities like running.
The Weight Room
The weight room should be a staple in every runner's training program, regardless of if they are injured or not. Weight bearing and resistance training are key to not only strengthening your muscles, but to increasing your bone density and strengthening your tendons and ligaments as well, which all add to increased stability when running. Working with a certified strength and conditioning coach is the best approach to building up a strength plan that caters to your specific needs, but understandably, this is not available to everyone. Basic strength routines can be fairly easily put together by the athlete themselves with a little research. Generally speaking, endurance athletes will lift 2-3 times per week. These lifts should consist of around 9-12 exercises split into three separate blocks (ie: Three exercises per block). Each block will be repeated 2-3 times through, with around 3 sets of 10-12 reps per exercise. This type of layout is designed to increase your muscular endurance, a crucial component to keeping good form while running. Again, this is just a general rule of thumb, and each athlete must find what works best for them. This is why finding a certified strength and conditioning coach to help you out is a great idea! If you have an injury that prevents you from being able to run, swim, bike, etc, there are still ways to produce similar aerobic or anaerobic efforts that can keep you on track with maintaining your fitness.
I will start off by stating that though I do have a degree in exercise science and am an experienced athlete myself, I am not a registered dietician or nutritionist. This information is to be taken as simple guidance and suggestions and if anyone is struggling with their nutrition, I recommend seeking out a professional. That being said, nutrition is huge when it comes to injury recovery. Just like we need calories, macronutrients, and micronutrients to fuel our training, we need these same things to fuel our recovery. The body will go through an inflammatory response in the acute stages of your injury. It will then begin to rebuild what is broken or injured. In simple terms, each phase of injury recovery takes extra energy from your body to perform. A usual athlete trap I hear from injured runners is that they feel they don't need to fuel themselves as much since their running volume has decreased. This is a dangerous ideology to follow that can quickly lead to underfueling. As your body recovers and builds itself back up, it needs good fuel. Injury recovery is a good time to re-evaluate your nutrition. Have you been eating a wide variety of foods? Do you incorporate whole foods or processed foods in your diet? Do you include a variety of fruits and vegetables throughout the day? While it is important not to get too caught up in food (and stay away from any "food rules"), it is important to note that your quality of recovery is often heavily tied to the quality of fuel it receives. During injury periods, I like to re-focus some of my energy into ensuring I am eating not only enough food, but a big variety of whole foods to ensure I get as many micronutrients as I can. Talking to a registered dietician or sports nutritionist is incredibly helpful in giving you the guidance you need to determine what foods you need, how much you need, and how to make sure you are getting all of the nutrients that YOU need for your own recovery and goals moving forward.
One last component I will touch on here in the importance of injury recovery is sleep. While some of us have dialed in our sleep schedules and achieve optimum rest every night, many if not most of us simply have not mastered the art of sleeping. The CDC recommends an average of 7-9 hours of sleep per night. This is dependent on the individual as one person may function well off of 7 hours while another may need the full 9. As athletes, we put extra stress from training on our bodies every day, meaning we will need more rest than the average sedentary or lightly active person. Athletes, especially those recovery from injury, should be aiming for the higher end of this range.
Once asleep, the brain undergoes a series of phases that make up one sleep cycle lasting approximately 90 minutes. Phases 1-3 are classified as non-REM sleep, while phase 4 is classified as REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. The body enters a sort of regenerative stage when the brain enters REM sleep. This is when recovery happens. All those micro-tears in your muscles from your workout, the overstressed tendons, broken bones, sprained ligaments, etc, undergo their greatest rebuilding process while you are in deep sleep. Neglect your sleep, and you neglect your recovery. Prioritize your sleep, and you will optimize your recovery and help yourself return to your beloved sport.
Recovering from a serious injury can feel like a full time job. Mentally it can be much harder than the actual training itself, but put in the work, stay motivated, stay positive, and you will come out on the other side. Most of the information here is just a basic overview on each topic and I'll likely end up writing more specific pieces about each of these with some good resources/background/supporting evidence later on. As I said before, being injured sucks, but it is up to you to take the action you need to recover. Reach out to friends, family, teammates, and coaches for help and support, and always remember that you will be back.