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The Injured Athlete

Allison Merlo running next to the ocean Photo by Kenny Withrow

If you're a runner, odds are you've been injured. It's (unfortunately) fairly common territory for us. The most common issues with being an injured runner are (1) finding different modalities that allow you to maintain or improve your fitness and (2) maintaining your drive to keep cross-training through the injury.

We runners are absolutely neurotic. There are memes upon memes that make fun of us for how obsessive we are with getting our daily runs in. And it's true. We ARE this way. So when our ability to run is instantly taken away from us for an unspecified period of time, we literally go through the stages of grief. 

If you're an injured runner and reading this blog post, I'm here to reassure you that you will eventually heal and be able to run again. But I'm also here to offer you some support and insight as to how you can continue training through your injury and even, dare I say it, progress your fitness and fall in love with fitness in general (in lieu of being so driven to just run all the time).

First thing is first, if you're injured or not, I highly recommend the book The Brave Athlete; Calm the F*ck Down and Rise to the Occasion. Keep this book laying around your house and turn to it when you need to. Odds are you'll be injured many times over the duration of your athletic career and this book has a chapter to calm the neurotic thoughts that will race through your head.

Being injured isn't the end of the world. I'm not trying to brag or anything like that, but I've been injured almost to the point of being considered "chronically" injured. Athletes get injured, it's just that some injuries are just worse than others. And I feel that's generally the way things are for athletes; we're all battling some kind of injury, but these injuries just vary in length and severity. Some injuries you can train through with some TLC from a foam roller, massage therapist, or physical therapist, and others hurt so much you have to switch to a different endurance modality.


I promise you, if you train correctly, using a bike, arc trainer, elliptical, ElliptiGO, studio bike, mountain bike, swimming in a pool, aqua jogging, rowing machine, or any of the other endurance modalities I missed, you can absolutely get an equivalent workout as a run. If you're looking for an endorphin boost or just have an inability to sit still for too long (yours truly), any one of these modalities can help in that regard.

The most important mentality that you can have is that fitness is built by doing fitness related activities. Just because you can't currently run doesn’t mean you're not building fitness. I know I was guilty of this mentality MANY years ago, so I know there are others out there who think this same thing right now.

Switching modalities isn't the end of the world, in fact, it can make you a stronger runner. Modalities like arc trainers, bikes, and elliptical machines can build strength and endurance in muscle groups not traditionally exercised by running, while at the same time forgoing the impact of running which can beat down your legs, and to be direct, that impact is probably what landed you on the disabled list in the first place.

I think one of the biggest barriers people have to including non-impact cardio into their weekly endurance training it the cost. Decent bicycles can cost anywhere from $600 to a few thousand dollars, depending on the brand and sport-specificity you're looking for. And with so many different variations of bicycles (mountain biking, hybrid bikes, gravel bikes, triathlon bicycles, and high end road bikes), it's easy to get lost in the weeds looking for a bike that suits your needs. We're a long way away from the Huffy WalMart special for $88.

So for those price-conscious athletes who are currently nursing an injury, might I suggest something as cheap as a Planet Fitness membership, or one of those other gyms that charges a nominal amount for a monthly membership? I was pleasantly surprised to find out that for $10 a month at Planet Fitness I had access to a few nice rowing machines as well as a row of scarcely used Arc Trainers. The benefit of Arc Trainers is that the movement on this machine closely mirrors that of running, engages the same muscle groups, and your heart rate training zones from running directly translate to your training zones on an Arc Trainer.

I get it, in the months of the year when the weather is nice, no one wants to be inside on a piece of fitness equipment. There's a tradeoff involved if you've opted to cardio indoors at a gym. Yes, it's boring, but you're exercising and the reward part of your brain that releases endorphins doesn't know the difference between exercise performed indoors and outdoors. So you'll feel better getting in some work, even if you have to binge watch all six seasons of Community over the course of your injury rehab. And the feeling you have after finishing a workout indoors, as mind-numbing as it may seem, is still VASTLY better than sitting on the couch pining the fact that you're injured.

Oh, also, it's air conditioned indoors, so you can exercise anytime you want, whereas those summer runs really have to be completed early in the morning lest you suffer from heat exhaustion. So at least you can plan your workouts more in accordance with your day instead of planning your day around your workouts.

The gist of all this is, not being able to run isn't the end of the world. You determine if your injury is a fitness setback or if you take this time to progress your fitness by diversifying your modalities. I know this for a fact because I've been able to progress my fitness over the last two months after suffering a meniscus injury. I had the internal motivation to find a modality that didn't negatively affect my injury and worked smarter and harder towards my goals. If you're reading this and you're injured, hopefully you've found the drive and determination to do the same for yourself.

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