Whether it be an injury, a new baby, or a global pandemic, most of us will need to take a break eventually (and it’s actually healthy to do so).
A year and a half ago, I hit my head getting off a bus the night before the Baltimore Marathon. The next morning, I woke up, feeling fine, and proceeded to the starting line, only to run one of the slowest, most miserable races of my life. A few days later, I found out I had run 26.2 miles with a fresh concussion.
Fast forward a year, two more marathons, and months’ worth of on-again-off-again headaches, and I decided I needed to take a long break from running to heal. I still adored distance running though, and while I knew I would lose much of my hard-earned endurance, I didn’t want to completely relinquish myself to sedentary atrophy.
Whether it be an injury, a new baby, or a global pandemic, most runners will need to take a break from running eventually (and it’s actually healthy to do so), but how do you use your time not running to become a better runner? Here are eight ways to up your running game without logging one single mile.
Whether you’re injured, trapped in your home while social distancing, or just taking a break from running, stretching is an easy place to start enhancing your overall physical fitness.
“While races have been cancelled, fitness and overall health have not been,” says Michael Conlon, a physical therapist, running coach, and the owner of Finish Line Physical Therapy in New York City. “It’s important that we take this opportunity to work on variables we tend to forget about while training for races, such as mobility and flexibility exercises.”
Conlon recommends that distance runners focus specifically on increasing mobility and stability in the thoracic spine, hips, and ankles, as these areas bear the brunt of the impact during running. “I focus on dynamic exercises,” Conlon says, “Because when you’re running, you’re never static. Here are a few great stretches to get you started in the morning as well as some dynamic stretches that focus on the hips, and legs.
An often-overlooked component of running fitness is strength training, so why not take time during your break to focus on getting stronger, and thus less injury-prone? Alice Holland, doctor of physical therapy, expert in runner’s gait, and the founder of Stride Strong Physical Therapy in Portland, Oregon, stresses the importance of strength training beyond just the legs. “If you are weak in a certain part of your body, another part will take over and bear the brunt of the work. If your quads and hips are loose, your ankles will have to bear that weakness,” she says.
Conlon adds that strength training also improves performance. “When your body gets stronger, you’re able to absorb the force you create while running, so you feel stronger and can run more easily.”
Where to start? Your behind, says Katie Dahl, doctor of physical therapy specialising in running injuries and concussion rehabilitation at OSR Physical Therapy in Minnesota. “The best place to strengthen will always be your glutes,” she says, “You don’t really turn on your glutes when you run, but they’re super important for giving your hips and knees support. You can target them with a simple bridge exercise.”
With easy home workouts available online, there are endless options for strength training. “Bodyweight exercises are key,” says Conlon, “I don’t think as runners we need to be squatting 100 to 150 Kg’s. You don’t need machines of equipment.”
While running is traditionally a “learn-by-doing” activity, cracking a book every once in a while can be a way to soak up information you’re not getting by pounding the pavement. The decade’s worth of hard-won knowledge in these books not only make you a smarter runner, but will also inspire you along the way.
Want 2 know one way 2 get better
at running that doesn’t involve more running? Read in bed. Books. Not a screen. Read B4 U turn the lights out. Every night. 10 pages, minutes, or chapters. Doesn’t matter. You’ll become a better runner. BC you’ll sleep better & B smarter
— Coach Bennett (@bennettrun) July 16, 2020
Another simple, inexpensive, stay-at-home activity to increase your overall fitness is foam rolling. “I’m not a big fan of absolute rest,” says Conlon. “There is always something you can be doing, even if it’s just working on your soft tissue hygiene by foam rolling.”
Using a foam roller or tennis ball, you can massage stiff muscles to increase blood flow, prevent soreness, and relieve superficial scar tissue. Here are some great foam roller basics, but Dahl says, “the best places to start are along the side of your leg, the front of your thigh, and then wherever else you’re sore.”
Do Other Cardio
Perhaps the hardest part of running to replicate while not running (and especially if you can’t get to a gym) is the cardiovascular workout. “If you want to be an endurance athlete, then you want to substitute an endurance type of cross training,” says Dahl, which makes sense. If you want to keep your body in running shape, you can’t just strength train and do yoga, even though both will help your overall performance.
So, what can you replace running with? Our experts had a number of ideas. Physical therapist, kinesiologist, and a specialist in running rehabilitation at the Institute for Athlete Regeneration, Brad Perry says, “Some of the biggest things that help with run fitness are the elliptical machine, aqua jogging, cycling, and rowing. Anything that increases your heart rate for a long period of time.” Dahl adds swimming to the mix as a great option, and Conlon suggests HIIT workouts.
If you don’t have access to a pool or gym, however, Holland offers some stay-at-home alternatives. “My number one go-to is a jump rope because it is easy to do, and you get exhausted within 10 to 15 minutes. It builds the calf muscles and the foot muscles, it helps your timing, and it helps with ankle strength.” She also recommends dance classes which are fun, upbeat, and easily available online. If you can get outside, she recommends “cross-training with different sports that are cardio intensive,” such as boxing and tennis. With a whole court and net in between you and your opponent, tennis is a sport ready made for social distancing.
Although eating the right food for your body while training for a race is extremely important, many runners find themselves returning to easy meals. Because logging miles is exhausting and time consuming, fueling moves to the back burner. Taking a break from running, however, could yield more time to experiment in the kitchen. Here are some easy new recipes to try out.
What should you eat while on your running sabbatical? Claire Shorenstein, a registered dietitian, certified nutritionist, and running coach says, “if you go from training for a marathon to spending most of your time at home, you should notice a change in your appetite.”
Listen as your body recalibrates. “There is no right way of eating, and you don’t want to fall into a restrictive diet that can lead to other problems,” she adds. Shorenstein recommends a good mix of fresh fruits, vegetables, proteins, and carbs, but says ultimately its up to you and what’s best for your body. “Especially during this pandemic, it’s important to be kind to yourself.” So, if you need a cookie, have at it.
Listen to Other Runners
The running community is a vast source of knowledge that often isn’t tapped, especially by go-it-alone runners who have never ran on a team or club. And while the tendency to think “it’s my body, and it’s working for me,” may be strong, you can always learn a thing or two from others. For those without running buddies to chat with, podcasts are a great way to tap into racing wisdom.
Last, but certainly not least, take time to rest. If your goal is to return to the sport rejuvenated, there is no sense taking a break from running just to run yourself ragged in other ways. “Your rest period is just as important as your running period,” says Holland.
For some runners, like me with a concussion, total rest is paramount. Dahl says that for concussion patients, “the only exercise you’re allowed to do is walking until you’re symptom free.” Perry, however, suggests low-intensity workouts like Pilates or yoga even during rest periods for stress relief.
No matter your mode of recovery, getting ample sleep is number one. “When you sleep, rest, and eat, your body rebuilds itself,” says Holland.
And while you’re resting, especially during these stressful times, try not to be hard on yourself. It can be easy to slip off and lose motivation, but use this time to make fitness fun for you, to explore new sides to running that you’ve been overlooking, and to rekindle your love of the sport. Before long, you’ll be ready to run, stronger than ever.