Runners. We can be quite an eccentric bunch. Notorious creatures of habit. Each week mirrors the week before–long weekend run, Tuesday speed workout, Thursday tempo, with some yoga session in between.
Sometimes though, all that training and preparation for the big race can backfire despite our best efforts, and you find yourself sidelined with an injury. What’s a runner to do with themselves while on a prescribed break from running? First thing–don’t panic–you may not have to wave goodbye to your PR aspirations. Runners can sustain fitness levels with a good cross-training routine, but first, let’s go over how long it takes to lose your fitness.
Your fitness includes both aerobic and structural fitness. Aerobic fitness refers to your body’s ability to use and transport oxygen, and is measured by VO2 max (the maximum amount of oxygen you can use during intense exercise). Structural fitness is best described as your body’s ability to endure the impact of running. So it refers to a lot of different moving parts, tendons, ligaments, joints and bones.
It takes between seven and 14 days to begin to lose your hard-earned aerobic fitness and endurance, and what you lose first is mostly the gains you’ve made most recently. While that doesn’t sound very good at all to any runner, there is good news. You will retain most of your endurance and aerobic fitness, and you will do so for several months. So, to reiterate, don’t panic when you are stricken with an injury.
Structural fitness refers to your body’s ability to withstand the impact of running. It includes your bones, muscles, tendons and ligaments and relates to how well they endure a high-impact sport, such as running. This area hasn’t been studied as much as cardiovascular fitness, but we do know that structural fitness declines more quickly than aerobic fitness and it also takes longer to build structural fitness.
You can sustain both aerobic and structural fitness with a good alternative training routine, and doing so may help you make a faster return to your former fitness level when you can start running again. Keeping up with a routine can also help you stay mentally healthy, considering when things fall out of order we runners have a tendency to feel lost, depressed and unmotivated. Because you know, runners usually like their schedules.
Depending on your injury, you may be able to incorporate the elliptical machine, stepper, row machine or cycling, but many of these low-impact exercises can still irritate a running injury. One of our favorite no-impact exercises that has proven fitness-maintenance-during-injury results is deep water running (we’ve included a great nine-week water running plan from Runner’s World below).
Before you jump into any exercise routine while you’re injured, discuss your plan with your doctor. When you do start your routine, don’t be overzealous (we know it’s easy) and take it slow. The last thing you need is another injury.
Don't have access to a pool? That's ok, there are a lot of great alternative training plans out there. Get an idea of where to start with this list!