Illness, Injuries, and Adapting Your Training Accordingly


As a runner, things often come up unexpectedly that mess with your training plan. For example, this weekend I had planned on hunting out a new fun-run location to tell you guys about, but instead, my I hurt my foot during a run and my training partner got sicker than she had been in years. Needless to say, this post won’t be about a cool new place to run.

Instead, this week I’ve been thinking about how adapting your training plan to these unexpected nuisances is a valuable thing to learn as a runner. So when all of a sudden you’re run has turned into a hobble because of an unknown muscle injury, or you’re feeling particularly under the weather, how do you figure out when you should run through it and when you should take a break?

Within your stereotypical runner personalities, there seem to be two extremes in approaches of to how to handle such circumstances, even if they aren’t how you should such circumstances.

The first extreme way of reacting to an illness or injury is to be overly cautious—the “better safe than sorry” approach. Let’s say you get shin splint and you immediately decide to take time off lest they turn into stress fracture, when in reality you could probably just treat them by icing and continue to train. The other extreme is to be overly ambitious—the “run through everything” approach.

You never want to take a break, and in the end it takes your body longer to recover from an injury or illness than if you had just given yourself time to rest in the first place. While throwing caution to the wind might sound like the more hip and dangerous approach, it is equally as unwise as being overly cautious. Each extreme approach has the same outcome—they both lead to wasting more time that could have been spend getting in quality training.

So how do you find the balance between the extremes? In all honesty, you learn as you go. I’ve been guilty in the past of adhering to the both the philosophies of the “train through everything” approach as well as the “better safe than sorry” approach. Learning from my mistakes as taught me to be a better judge of when to run and when to cross train or rest.

It’s really all about listening to your body—whether that means swallowing your pride and hanging up your running shoes for the day or sucking it up and training anyways. You are the ultimate judge when it comes to case by case decisions of when to train and when to rest, but here are some general guidelines to help you make your choices.

When you’re sick, lay low, but be an honest judge of how you feel. While certain colds really do have a way of knocking you off your feet, a case of the sniffles or a cough probably doesn’t require a break from training. On the other hand, it’s best to take a day off when you do feel awful. The thought of taking a break can stress some runners out, but one day of rest will not affect your race—in fact, a day or two of rest when you really need it will make you get well quicker and therefore lead to more time for quality training.

If you’re on the fence about what to do, you can always just go for an easy run instead of a workout. If you have an important workout that you really feel you cannot miss, don’t be hard on yourself if your interval times aren’t up to par. Your body isn’t at 100% so account for that when you reflect on your performance afterwards. And now, injured runners, let me introduce you to your new best friend: cross training. While some injuries may require complete rest, there are lots of different ways to cross train and most likely one or a few of them won’t aggravate your injury.

For a cardio-based workout, look to swimming and aqua jogging; for a lower body workout, try cycling. Ellipticals are an especially great way for runners to cross train since it mimics the motion of running and uses the same muscle groups, all without the impact from footfalls.

One day of cross training is usually not enough to relieve overuse injuries (which are those random, inexplicable pains and pulls are that stick around for longer than you’d like). Different combinations of cross training and running are needed for extended injuries, and how you integrate cross training and running is something you’ll have to decide for yourself based on your injury and what you are training for.

One cross country season a teammate with an achilles injury cross trained for every scheduled easy run but ran all the workouts. In the case of my foot, I’m planning on cross training every 1-2 days, because I the reality is that I need to rebuild the base I lost while I had pneumonia before I begin significantly building mileage starting January 1st. On average, it’s best to run when you can, but it’s not worth it to run when it is going to make your injury worse.

As I mentioned last week, cross training is useful even when you aren’t injured because it can keep you from getting injured in the first place by giving your body a break from the pounding and certain muscles a break from constant use—all while still getting in a workout. Even if you’re not concerned with injuries enough to make cross training a regular part of your routine, you can still use it on occasion. When you’re feeling consistently flat during your workouts—like you just don’t have any get up and go—give cross training a try for a day and feel how much fresher your legs are the next time they hit the ground.

The thing about cross training is that it makes you appreciate running so much more. Any runner who’s been injured for a week or more and had to cross train full time will tell you that’s true. It’s frustrating not to be able to run, and no form of cross training feels like an exactly equivalent workout to running, even though it is the next best thing. Don’t let that discourage you, though. While it’s not optimal, cross training has been proved to be worth it—especially when you’re other option is to not train.

Take Lauren Fleshman, for example. She is a Nike-sponsored athlete, Eugene’s own running sweetheart, and basically the poster child for successful cross training. Because an IT band injury that kept her from running more than 2 miles at a time starting last November, she had to supplement the rest of her training through various forms of cross training. Lo and behold, come this July she ran fast enough to make the finals at the Olympic track trials in the 5k at 15:51.83—the longest distance she had ran since November!

Now, us mere mortals, even with all the miles and no injuries, aren’t even dreaming of running a 15 minute 5k as a woman. I should also mention that the incredible level of Lauren’s performance after being injured for so long should be attributed as much to her sheer guts as to the powers of cross training. That being said, Lauren is still an example of how cross training shouldn’t be underestimated, and I hope you injured runners out there are encouraged to keep working toward your racing goals—and to do it in a healthy way.

Until next time, I’ll see you on the trails!

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