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Can’t Run? Step Up To The Stool

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Retain your running fitness with this simple exercise.

Written by: Courtney Baird

Everyone knows that when you can’t run due to injury, the next best thing is to cross train.

But no matter how much cross training you do, nothing will ever replace running. The pounding associated with running is difficult to replicate (and it’s probably what got you injured in the first place).

When you do a workout with excessive pounding—meaning more than your body has already been conditioned to handle—the pounding tends to break down muscle tissue and your legs literally begin to fill with garbage. A great example of this is what you experience in your first 20-miler of the season. At some point blood cells burst, capillaries leak, muscle fibers stretch and snap while trying to contract—you get the picture.

As you run more miles, your body adapts and is able to handle more and more pounding. But if you stop running for a long period of time, you begin to lose your ability to handle it.

So when you’re injured, the $40,000 question becomes, what’s the best way to replicate the pounding of running without aggravating the injury?

Luckily, this year I found a simple exercise that I believe helps answer this question.

In February, I came down with tendinitis in my knee. To maintain my cardiovascular fitness, I continued to cross train with bike rides, stairmaster workouts and hours in the pool.

But to help me maintain my eccentric strength—my ability to handle pounding—my coach suggested an exercise that requires a step stool and some weights. (Be sure to consult your doctor or physical therapist before you try any weight training exercise while you’re injured.) Holding 20 pounds—I weigh 120 pounds, so adjust accordingly—I would step up on to the stool and slowly rise all the way onto my five toes, using my glute, quad, hamstring and calf to propel me upward. You want to step up slow enough so that you activate all of the muscles involved in stepping up—if you cheat and pop up too quickly or use your other leg to assist you, you won’t get everything you can out of the exercise. Then, I would lower myself down even more slowly—counting to four as I did so—until my knee was as close to 90 degrees as I could manage.

The key to the exercise is the slow downward movement.

I’d repeat that 10 times and then switch legs.

I believe the exercise helped me maintain a surprisingly high level of running fitness during my bout with tendinitis. I know this because the end of my tendinitis struggle coincided with me toeing the line at the Vineman Half Ironman on July 18. Except for three 10Ks at the end of three triathlons, I had done almost no running over the preceding five months. But after swimming 1.2 miles and biking 54, I figured I might as well experiment with how much pounding my body could handle on the half marathon portion of Vineman.

Surprisingly, I was able to cope with 10 miles of hard running (I started out with a 6:40 mile) before the garbage building up in my muscles got too toxic and my legs gave out on me. Needless to say, I was extremely happy with the result. In fact, I wonder what the result would have been if I had worked up to three sets of 10 step-ups like my coach had recommended.

In case you’re wondering, although I’m tendinitis free, I’m still doing those step-ups.


Courtney Baird is senior editor of Inside Triathlon magazine. She ran Division 1 cross country and track and now competes in triathlons as an elite age-grouper. She can be reached by e-mail at