Uh-oh… that pop you heard during your run wasn’t a car backfiring — it was your knee. Just like that, you think all the hard work and training you’ve put in will fade into oblivion as you’re sidelined for weeks or months to recuperate.
Not so fast.
That’s a defeatist attitude, and you’re better than that. Take a minute to cry and visit your doctor (no sense in freaking out until you have a confirmed injury!), then assess your current exercise program. Sure, you may not be able to keep logging the miles on the road or the reps at the squat rack, but unless you end up in a full-body cast, chances are your workout routine is simply limited — not completely sidelined.
The good news is, retaining the hard work you’ve accomplished isn’t as tough as you think. The trick is to choose exercises appropriate for your injury and workout program that are also aligned with your doctor’s orders (and do make sure to clear the activity with your doctor).
1. Deep water running
If you’re a runner experiencing a lower-body injury that’s interfering with your ability to hit the pavement, it’s time to head to the pool. Deep water running with the assistance of a special flotation belt enables you to continue training as usual, without any impact to your extremities. The trick here is to train for time rather than distance, since it’s much harder to travel through the water than across land. Also, aim to maintain your typical step cadence, even though you’re underwater. While water-based exercise actually feels easier than land-based running, you can maintain your volume of oxygen maximum — or VO2 max — and make an easy transition back to the turf if you keep your training regimen similar to your usual running routine.
There’s a reason you see upright bikes on the sidelines of practically every NBA and NFL bench. Not only do they make it easy for athletes to stay warm while out of a game, they make it easy for injured athletes to maintain their cardiovascular health while nursing an injury.
The type of cycling you choose (upright bike, group cycling bike or recumbent bike) depends on your injury and personal preference. All bikes tend to reduce impact for lower-body injuries while maintaining leg strength and VO2 max, although group cycling bikes and upright bikes may place undo stress on the low back and shoulders. If you’re nursing an upper-body injury or a back injury, recumbent cycling may be the most comfortable option.
3. Upper-body ergometer
When you’re in a leg cast, a knee brace or you’re under strict orders from your doctor to rest your lower body (this is particularly true shortly after an injury, before regular rehab has begun), you may still be able to get away with using an upper-body ergometer. These funny looking “arm bikes” provide you with a seat to sit on and handles at roughly chest height for you to cycle your arms with. While you won’t burn as many calories using an upper-body ergometer as you would on a regular bike (the muscles of your upper body are simply smaller, thereby not producing the heat or energy the muscles of your lower body produce), you’ll be surprised how challenging the workout is. It’s a great way to build upper-body muscular endurance while maintaining your cardiovascular health.
Just keep in mind, if you typically engage in an activity like running, cycling, strength training or group exercise, where leg strength is particularly important, you’ll want to talk to your doctor about how to maintain your lower-body training to reduce deconditioning.
4. Smart strength training
There’s a reason physical therapy is considered the norm during injury rehab — strength training, particularly training the muscles that support the injured site, is critical to long-term recovery. Generally speaking, there’s no reason you can’t maintain a strength-training program while injured — you may just have to make adjustments to your usual routine. For instance, if you’re dealing with a knee injury, you may have to ditch the squats (and all the plyos!) and stick to low-impact machine weights and bands when working your lower body. But, there’s no reason you can’t stick to your regular core and upper-body routines, as long as they don’t aggravate your injury.
Likewise, if you’re dealing with a shoulder injury, you should be able to maintain your typical lower-body routine (although you may have to recruit help when handling free weights), simply scaling back on upper-body work and focusing on using bands and machines.
5. Water aerobics
If you’re a group exercise fanatic, water aerobics are the natural choice when nursing an injury. For practically every group exercise program out there (Zumba, cycling, boxing and even yoga), there’s a similar water exercise program available. Water’s buoyancy reduces impact and enables a greater range of motion, making it possible to maintain flexibility and strength without placing undo stress on an injured bone or joint. You may have to do a little searching to find a pool that offers a program most similar to your favorite routine, but by maintaining movement patterns and exercise intensity, you’ll find yourself bouncing back to your usual self in no time.