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Upwards of 75 percent of runners suffer some sort of injury each year. Whether it’s a serious diagnosis, like a stress fracture, or a more fleeting ache or pain, those sidelining ailments can leave you feeling like your fitness is slipping. Sure you may be able to bike or swim more, but nothing can take the place of running those miles, right?
New research gives hope to athletes looking for an alternative to running during periods of injury and rehab: The elliptical. While elliptical machines have long been used by endurance athletes for cross-training and rehab, one study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that for a group of experienced runners, four weeks of elliptical-only training yielded similar physiological and performance maintenance and improvements when compared to run-only training. Indeed, other earlier research in the same publication demonstrated that the oxygen consumption and energy expenditure of an elliptical session is comparable to that of a treadmill workout.
Nick Tranbarger, the head coach and director of TS2 Coaching in Indianapolis, says he often suggests that his athletes use the elliptical during periods of rehab when they can’t run. “On a physiological level, when monitored through the use of a heart-rate monitor, aerobic development can continue during a time when most athletes will see a dip in their fitness levels,” Tranbarger explains. “This not only helps them continue to develop the efficiency of their energy systems, it also keeps them mentally engaged in their training.”
“As a starting point, I would aim to spend no more than 50 percent of your original run duration on the elliptical and then reassess how you are feeling,” advises Andrew Dollar, a Level 2 USAT-certified coach based in Hendersonville, Tenn. “If the athlete is not experiencing any particular symptoms, then I may raise the duration to 75 percent.”
Tranbarger recommends a similar approach, saying, “If a runner normally runs five sessions in four hours per week, my suggestion would be to keep the frequency of their aerobic training at the same at five sessions, but decrease the total amount of time to roughly 75 percent.”
In terms of reining in intensity during these elliptical sessions, a heart-rate monitor can come in handy. “I encourage athlete to apply the same run zones to their elliptical workouts or apply perceived exertion levels to the workouts,” Dollar says. “In either situation, athletes shouldn’t strive for a hard or even tempo-level workout—the exertion level shouldn’t climb past an easy pace when you’re recovering from an injury.”
The emphasis should be on recovery and maintenance, not on building additional running fitness. That said, depending on the injury, you may be able to build up your training in swimming and biking during this time, and come out ahead. Whether you’re planning on swapping running for the elliptical or adding in additional time in the saddle or the water, the key is to listen to your body. Anytime you switch up training, there is a risk of injury. Wade into any new routine slowly to prevent additional injuries from interrupting your season.
Elliptical Injury Plan
If you normally run five sessions in four hours per week, keep up the frequency of aerobic training, but decrease total time to 75 percent of your run volume, suggests coach Nick Tranbarger.