Cross Training for Injured Athletes

Cross Training

When an injury throws a wrench in your training plans you may find yourself feeling helpless as you watch your hard-earned fitness slowly fade away.

However, depending on the type of injury you are experiencing there are multiple cross training routines available that can help you maintain fitness while you wait to be cleared to run.

Although many runners find cross training to be boring, getting in an alternative workout session is not only good for the body, but good for the mind, too.

Aqua Jogging
Perhaps the most dreaded, but also one of the most useful, exercises for injured runners is aqua jogging. When running in the deep end of a pool with a flotation belt (available to borrow at many YMCA and pool facilities), the body is allowed full range of motion without any impact.

The resistance of the water helps strengthen weak muscles that may be at the root of the injury, and the water has therapeutic properties that help reduce swelling, improve circulation, and promote healing. Although aqua jogging is boring, it is the best mimic for running and the go-to exercise for anyone with a stress fracture or other injury that requires zero impact activity.

Sample workout
An example of a workout that can be performed in the pool is a fartlek. With a flotation belt attached, go to the deep end of the pool and jog from wall to wall for five minutes. Be sure to remain upright and vertical as best you can and “run” with as proper form as is possible. After the warm up alternate sprinting for 3:00 and treading water in place for 1:00. Repeat this cycle 8 – 10 more times for a total of 32 – 40 minutes.


Indoor and outdoor cycling is another great form of cross training. This type of exercise, however, should only be performed if zero pain is experienced, as it is not truly zero-impact. People in the early stages of a stress fracture, for instance, may find that cycling with resistance irritates the injury.

For other injuries, such as shin splints, cycling provides a good cardio workout and has even been suggested to improve running form. The cycling motion promotes efficient leg movement and cycling cadence can be correlated to running pace.

In fact, research has shown that high cadence cycling can increase a runner’s turnover. To achieve the best running-specific cycling workout, cadence should be maintained above 90 rpm.

Sample workout
A tough workout that can be used to maintain aerobic fitness is a fartlek-type pyramid. Begin with an eight minute cycling warm up and then cycle hard for five minutes at 100 rpm. After the five minutes of hard cycling are completed, cycle for five minutes at 90 rpm. Next, complete four minutes of hard cycling at 110 rpm, followed by an easy four minutes of 90 rpm cycling. Continue this cycle until you reach 1:00 hard/1:00 easy and then work your way back up to five minutes of hard cycling.


The elliptical machine provides a great full body workout that gives mimics the way arms and legs move during a run. However, workouts on an elliptical machine can put a lot of stress on feet and lower legs and should be avoided if recovering from a foot, ankle, or shin injury.

When runners are cleared to run and are simply seeking a lower-impact activity to supplement running, the elliptical is more appropriate.

Sample workout
Any running workout can easily be converted into an elliptical workout. For instance, if planning to run 4 miles, an equivalent workout on an elliptical would be 40 minutes. Maintain an aerobic base by exercising in the cardio heart rate zone, which is automatically calculated by many elliptical machines.


Hand Cycle
If you have suffered a lower leg injury that prohibits you from any activity utilizing your legs, the hand cycle can provide you with a tough cardio workout. This machine looks like a recumbent bike, yet instead of leg pedals you use your hands to pedal in a bicycling motion.

While you will not be able to prevent leg muscle atrophy in this way, you will still be able to keep your cardiovascular system strong while maintaining muscle definition in your arms.

Sample workout
The hand cycle is certainly not the most riveting of exercises, so a good workout will involve switching intensities often. After a five minute warm up, alternate cycling at 80 – 90% maximum effort for two minutes with cycling at 50% effort for one minute. Repeat this pattern 8 – 10 times total and follow with a five minute cool down.


Walking can provide a great supplemental exercise to running when injuries (such as a muscle strain) prevent other participation in other cross training activities. Since walking and running require similar muscles and movements it is a great, albeit time consuming, alternative.

In fact, speed walking on the treadmill can help maintain cardiovascular fitness as well as leg strength. Increasing the incline on the treadmill or adding a weigh vest can further intensify the workout.

Sample workout
Set the treadmill to a moderately fast pace (16:00 per mile or faster) and increase the incline as much as you are comfortable. Walking 3 – 4 miles in this manner can help you maintain a decent level of fitness.


Yoga is often overlooked as a suitable form of cross training because people consider it to “just” be stretching. However, yoga has been shown to increase heart rate and also help you work up a great sweat.

It is also beneficial for someone who is overcoming an injury to a muscle or tendon as it provides a structured form of stretching and strengthening. Yoga has been shown to reduce stress and blood pressure, which are both beneficial when the body is working to overcome injury.

Sample workout
If simply looking for a way to be held accountable to stretch for an hour, recovery yoga is a great class to attend. However, Vinyasa or Hatha flow classes can provide a great heart rate increasing workout.

If you have some cross training tips please add a comment or join the discussion on Facebook.


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