How To Stay In Shape While Injured


Injury is a runner’s worst nightmare. But they’re bound to happen. While you should be taking measures to prevent injuries as much as possible, it’s a good idea to have an “injury plan” in the event you get hurt.

We know that it’s tempting just to let yourself go for a few weeks while you return to full health. But with some focused planning, discipline, and a good support system, you can easily maintain your running fitness and not lose out on any of the gains you’ve made.

Here’s what we recommend to stay in shape while injured.

Staying Active While Injured – Why It Matters

Research shows that you can take up to 5 days off from exercise and not see any adverse effects on your fitness. But between 5 days and 3 weeks, several processes happen in your body that can cause your fitness to drop.

At 5 to 6 days of no exercise, your blood plasma volume decreases. This causes your cardiac output to decrease, which means less oxygen gets to your muscles, reducing performance.

Around 10 days, your VO2 max will be 4 to 5 percent lower than before. Your body might also struggle to fire muscle fibers like it did when you were active. Cardiac muscle size might also reduce, and your body will struggle to use glycogen.

You might also find that you start gaining weight if you don’t stay active, as well as experiencing joint or muscle aches and pains and fatigue sooner than usual when doing everyday activities like climbing stairs.

That doesn’t mean you need to return to your regular running schedule after 5 days if you’re injured. But it does mean that you should try to take other steps to stay in shape while injured. Not doing so will make it that much harder to return to your regular routine later.

Aside from being harder to come back strong, you’ll also be more at risk of re-injuring yourself if you don’t stay in shape while not running.

How Long Does It Take To Regain Running Fitness After Injury?

There’s no specific answer to this question because it’s different for every runner and every injury. The quality of your recovery also plays a huge role—you can’t expect to loaf around on the sofa and eat junk food for 3 weeks and then get back to your running fitness quickly.

If you structure your recovery properly and ease yourself back into running, you can expect to return to your previous running fitness level in about 2 weeks. However, it’s a good idea not to expect this number—it might take a little longer for you, but it’s important to listen to your body.

How to Stay in Shape While You’re Injured

The good news is that it’s not hard to maintain your physical fitness while your body is healing. It requires some effort and planning upfront, but if you take these steps, you can look forward to returning stronger after your rest.

1. Stay in Shape With Cross-Training

Just because you can’t run, it doesn’t mean you can’t do other types of exercise. Now’s the time to find a form of cross-training that works for you to maintain your fitness level while you can’t run.

You can stick to one or try a few different things here. It may take some time to get used to a different type of exercise and figure out what sort of intensity works for you. What you do will also be dependent on the type of injury you’re recovering from.

It’s also a good idea to try and structure your cross-training similarly to your running schedule before, so you still get roughly the same amount of exercise.

2. Strength Training: The Key to Running Injury-Free

If you aren’t already doing strength training—weight lifting, resistance training, body weight training—now is a great time to start.

Building muscle and strength can significantly impact your running performance and reduce your risk of injury. You may need to adjust your strength training to accommodate your injury, but you shouldn’t neglect it unless your injury prevents you completely from doing it.

You may want to take the chance to work on any muscle imbalances, improve your core strength, or work on maintaining strength in your “running muscles.”

3. Incorporate Low-Impact Activities Into Your Routine

Depending on your severity and type of injury, you may have to incorporate other low-impact activities into your routine. This may mean taking a short, easy walk for the first few days or weeks while you heal.

You can also do your best to increase the amount of general movement you do daily until you can include activities like yoga or Pilates into your exercise routine. These exercises can help you maintain muscle strength, increase blood flow to the soft tissues, and improve your range of movement.

This can help reduce the healing time of the injury.

4. Stretch to Improve Your Flexibility and Range of Motion

It can be easy to get stiff if you aren’t doing your usual activity. Incorporate daily stretching to loosen up your muscles if they’re tight from cross-training, but also make sure to stretch the injured part gently.

This will help to retain flexibility and a full range of motion. If gentle stretching causes pain, you may need to wait for it to heal more before stretching it.

5. Maintain a Healthy Diet

As tempting as it is, don’t give up on your healthy eating if you can’t train. Food is medicine, so maintaining a healthy diet plays a bigger role than you think in your injury recovery.

If you’re counting calories, it’s a good idea to adjust your calorie intake to match your new activity level. This will help you not accidentally to overshoot your calories during this time.

6. Stick To Your Sleep Schedule

Sleep is also an essential part of healing. It might be tempting to sleep on a weekend when you normally get up and go for a long run, but do your best to stick to your regular sleep schedule.

This will help your body to stay energized. It also helps you to stay in good habits while waiting for your injury to heal, rather than letting it go and then having to try and get back to those habits a few weeks later.

7. Continue With Rehab and Physical Therapy

If you’re going for physical therapy or rehabilitation therapy for your injury, don’t end it early! Continue going to therapy until your therapist is happy for you to continue without coming back.

Remember, just because your injury feels better doesn’t mean it’s fully healed. Skipping out early can leave your injured part unstable and more prone to reinjury in the future.

What You Should Consider Before Cross-Training

Cross-training is the most important part of staying in shape while injured. But only if you do it right! Here’s what you need to consider to choose the right type of cross-training for your situation.

The Type of Injury You Have

Obviously, what you are able to do is dependent on the type of injury you’re recovering from. The idea here is to rest the injured part properly—not just give it a break from running.

The type of injury you have and which body part is affected will play a large part in what kind of cross-training will work for you.

  • Swimming: Low-impact workout suitable for foot, ankle, and lower back injuries. It may be difficult for knee, elbow, and shoulder injuries.
  • Walking: Walking works the same muscles as running, but it’s much more low-impact and still gives you a fantastic cardiovascular workout.
  • Cycling: The recumbent bike is a great choice for upper body injuries. Not recommended for injuries of the feet, ankles, and knees.
  • Elliptical: Low-impact option might be a good choice for minor to moderate foot and knee injuries. Not recommended for elbow or shoulder injuries.
  • Stair Stepper: This can be a good choice for minor foot injuries and an excellent choice for upper body injuries.
  • Rowing: Another low-impact choice that can work for certain foot injuries depending on your range of motion. Not recommended for upper body, knee, or back injuries.
  • Battle Ropes: This is a great idea for lower body injuries because the lower body stays still, but the upper body and the cardiovascular system get a great workout.
  • Weight Lifting Circuits: Your options are vast with weight training, and you can create circuits that train the areas that aren’t injured and still give you a good cardiovascular workout.

There’s No Pain or Swelling

If your injury is still painful or swollen, it’s best to wait until the swelling goes down and you don’t have pain when moving. This will require some patience, but it’s worth waiting.

Get back to cross-training while you’re still sore, and not only will you not enjoy it, but you’re at a higher risk of reinjuring yourself or causing a new injury altogether.

You Can Bear Weight Without Instability

If your chosen form of cross-training involves bearing weight on your injured part, make sure you can do so without pain or instability. An unstable joint or muscle will make you more susceptible to re-injury.

Your Range of Motion Isn’t Impeded

If the only way to cross-train without pain or instability is to do it without moving through your full range of motion, then you should choose something else.

You should be able to move through your full range of motion during the activity—if you can’t, you either need to choose a different form of cross-training or wait until your pain and movement are back to a level you can work with.

Tips for Runners Dealing With Injury

Dealing with an injury is no fun, but in many cases, it can be more mentally and emotionally taxing than physically! Here are some tried-and-true tips to help you get through it more easily.

Be Patient and Take Time Off

We understand wanting to rush through recovery, but if you don’t do it properly, you will only be more susceptible to injuries going forward. It’s in your best interest to practice patience and take a proper break from running.

Remember, you can still cross-train, which doesn’t mean sitting around doing nothing. Get this right, and your recovery will be successful.

Maintain a Positive Mindset

This can be tricky because you’re bound to have moments of feeling down because you can’t run. Having an action plan for maintaining a positive mindset during injury recovery time is a good idea.

Consider things like reading some running books, magazines, or blogs, do research or learn how to improve your form, watching some running documentaries or inspiring movies, or catching up with some friends who make you feel positive.

Depending on you, you may also want to try things like positive visualization, affirmations, or creating a vision board to inspire you while you wait to get back to running.

Set Realistic Goals and Milestones

There are two common mistakes during injury recovery: sticking to the same running frequency but lowering your intensity or reducing your frequency but still running hard.

It’s important to set realistic goals during your recovery time. You may need to take a few weeks off from running completely, or you might need to scale down to walking for a couple of weeks.

Ultimately, it’s up to you to assess your injury and act accordingly. It’s better to reduce your frequency and intensity because if you’re overdoing it, it’ll take longer to recover.

Plan and Modify Your Running Routine

It’s an excellent idea to modify your existing running routine so that by the time you’re ready to get back to running, you can start slower and work your way back up to your previous level.

Going back in at the same frequency and intensity you were at before your injury only makes you more prone to getting injured again. Modify your running plan so you’re starting at about 50% of what you were doing, in both frequency and intensity.

You can increase by 5 to 10% per week until you’re back to where you were. This might sound frustrating, but it will help your body to get back into the level of activity gradually, adapting to it as time goes. Doing it this way significantly lowers your chance of reinjury.

Use the Time to Strengthen Weakness or Imbalances

If you know you’re quad dominant, for example, this is the perfect opportunity to work on strengthening your hamstrings so you can improve your form. Depending on what kind of injury you have, you’ll need to be careful what you do to help strengthen your weak spots.

This is handy if you know you have a weakness and you haven’t really had time to work on it during your regular training schedule.

Stay Connected With the Running Community

If you’re active in the running community, don’t distance yourself from it while you’re recovering. Staying involved can help keep your spirits up if you’re feeling down about not being able to run, plus you’ll probably get some great advice from other runners.

You can also get involved in different ways, like marshaling races, volunteering at water tables, or venturing into the organizational side of things.

Signs You’re Ready to Run Again

Although we’ve explained the importance of being careful and taking it easy when injured, we know how it feels to be raring to run again! Here are some signs to look out for. When you can tick some of these boxes, you should be good to go!

  • You can walk for 30 minutes without feeling pain
  • It’s easy to climb a flight of stairs with no pain
  • There’s no visible swelling or redness in the area of the injury
  • You can move through your full range of motion without pain
  • You can bear weight without feeling unstable
  • A physiotherapist or other rehab therapist gives you the go ahead

Remember, at this point you should be easing yourself into a routine that builds up slowly to where you were before. Don’t jump back into it at full speed—start slow and build it up gradually to avoid getting inured again.

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Ben is an avid road and trail runner, and has completed multiple marathons and ultras. A former running store owner, he now shares his knowledge and experience writing these articles.