Your training options when you can't run

How to stay run-fit

Even the most dedicated runner may find there are times when they are unable to run. A holiday, a working commitment, or injury can all mean that you are sidelined from your running. However, there are ways to maintain your fitness level even when you can't run ...

Being unable to run may be frustrating, but it's not time to panic. There are plenty of other fitness training options that you can do to minimize your running-specific fitness losses. If you're experiencing running downtime, the following alternative training options should help you stay run-fit.

(A note of caution — If you're unable to run because you are injured then you need to ensure that any exercise you do will  not aggravate your injury. If you are in any doubt whatsoever, consult a reputable sports therapist.)

Alternatives training options to running

There are plenty of training options available to you including:

  • Outdoor training activities
  • Gymnasium training activities
  • Other training options

The key thing to remember with your alternative training is that you're trying to replicate the challenges of running as closely as possible without actually running. To do this, you need to focus, where possible, on exercises that use the legs and work the cardiovascular system

Outdoor training activities

As a runner, outdoor training is likely to be your most preferable option. The following options are all great alternative outdoor pursuits:

  • Road cycling. Cycling is all about leg exercise, which will exercise your CV system effectively. However, for some of the time your weight is supported on the saddle — so to maximize your training benefits, try pushing heavier gears when on the flat, or try training on a hilly course; in both of these cases, you will have to climb out of the saddle frequently. To get the same benefits as running you'll have to train for longer than your regular running sessions.
  • Off-road cycling. Mountain biking is great CV exercise. Although you're likely to go at a slower pace compared with road cycling, the additional demands of the terrain will usually mean that your workout is more challenging — and therefore your CV benefits will be greater.

  • Cross-country skiing. Not as fanciful a suggestion as you might think! Elite cross-country skiers have some of the best CV systems of all aerobic athletes. By skiing cross country, you can get a fantastic workout for your heart and lungs just like a running session. So, if you're on a skiing break, take the opportunity to go off-piste a few times and you could return home much fitter than when you left.
  • Rowing. An excellent exercise for all-round strength. Rowing involves your bodyweight being supported, unlike running, so your training session will need to be longer than your usual runs (depending on the intensity of both your row and your normal running sessions). Always remember to drive with your legs as well as pulling the oar with your arms — which will mean you'll be more efficient, row faster and get a higher quality workout.

Gymnasium training activities

Gym training on a machine for long periods can get a little dull, so take along your favourite tracks on your MP3 player to help keep you going!

  • Cross-trainer. An excellent all-round machine that can also give your arms a workout too. Although it's less challenging than running because you’re supporting your own bodyweight, you will get good CV training benefits from using a cross-trainer — and if you experiment with the varying resistance levels, you should be able to find an intensity that brings you pretty close to the challenge of running.
  • Stationary bike. Similar to road cycling. To get the most out of exercising on a stationary bike, climb out of the saddle as often as possible. As a bike session needs to be longer to match your runs, boredom can be a problem — so a prime position in front of the gym’s TV will make all the difference.
  • Hand cycle. This is a less suitable exercise than using the stationary bike because you are using much smaller muscle groups (arms and shoulders), so your demand for oxygen compared with a leg workout will be significantly reduced — which means the training benefits for your CV system will also be reduced. If you do use the hand cycle, try to also use other pieces of gym CV equipment as well.
  • Stepper. A good piece of CV equipment which focuses on the legs — so it's ideal for runners. Using a stepper is great for improving specific leg strength, particularly if you add some resistance via the control console. Make sure that you take full steps rather than tiny little ones, so that you work your muscles through a greater range of movement and get greater training benefits. 
  • Versa-climber. The versa-climber is one of the most powerful pieces of gymnasium CV equipment, and will provide you with an excellent alternative training workout. If you ensure that you always take full length steps, you should maintain your running fitness by doing the same amount of training that you would normally do when running.
  • Stationary rower. This very closely copies rowing on water and provides a good workout, although you’ll need to train for longer than your usual running sessions because you're seated rather than standing up, and so are supporting your bodyweight.

If you can’t get outdoors and there isn’t a gym nearby, there are still activities that you can enjoy to maintain your running fitness. Try the following:

  • Swimming. A great all-round exercise — and because your weight is always supported, swimming is easier than running. For the same training effects as running, you need to swim freestyle (the crawl) — and interestingly, you will achieve the greatest benefits if your technique is poor! Very efficient swimmers can plough up and down the pool effortlessly all day, hardly breaking sweat. Your goal is to work your heart and lungs in the same way that running does, so the less efficient you are in the water, the harder you have to work — and hence you will get greater training benefits.

  • Pool running. Otherwise known as ‘wet-vesting’, pool running is an excellent training alternative to running, particularly if you’re injured. To train in the pool, you need to wear a small flotation aid around your torso, which gives you sufficient buoyancy to maintain an upright position in the water. Then, making sure that you’re in water deep enough so that you can’t touch the bottom, you run! To generate forward motion, your arm and leg movements have to be exaggerated compared with running through air — but other than that, the two disciplines are extremely similar. Despite your weight being supported by the water, you can achieve an excellent CV workout that is as close to running as you can get.

Back to running

Aside from suffering from an injury, it is likely that any enforced changes to your usual running routine will not be for long. You could actually look at it as an opportunity to experience some different training options, such as those described here, while keeping running-fit at the same time. Whichever ideas you dip into from the selection above, you can be sure that they have all been chosen because they can give your CV system a workout — which, as a runner, should be your primary aim. Then when you are able to don your running shoes again, it’ll feel like you’ve never been away!

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