Years ago I’m in between clients and a gym member comes up to ask a question.
“Is there any good substitute for running? I’m giving my achilles a break.”
“Ehh, you can try the elliptical, but because of the lack of pounding, it’s not really that similar.”
“Yeah, the elliptical fucking sucks. So does the bike. Nothing is like actual running. Ok never mind. Later.”
“[laughs] That’s one way to put it. Have a good one.”
That situation is our jumping point. The amount of situations are pretty endless for something like this, but finding something to make up for running, while recovering from an injury preventing running, is most common.
Anecdotal / Lance Armstrong
On one side we have the group who says “Of course it’s worthwhile! You don’t want to get out of shape!” On the other side we have something like “Look at Lance Armstrong’s marathon performance.”
Back in 2006 Lance ran the New York City marathon. He got 869th place and described it as the hardest physical thing he’s ever done.
“I can tell you, 20 years of pro sports, endurance sports, from triathlons to cycling, all of the Tours — even the worst days on the Tours — nothing was as hard as that, and nothing left me feeling the way I feel now, in terms of just sheer fatigue and soreness”
Strong words for a guy who won the Tour de France one year prior! However, in that time span he wasn’t the Tour rider anymore. He was 20 pounds heavier, probably off drugs, only ran 45 minutes a day, and never ran more than 16 miles in training. (A giant mistake seemingly every first time marathoner makes. You still have more than a third of the race, ten miles -add over 50% to your longest run- you haven’t run yet!) So it’s not like he was in anywhere near the same shape. Merely a year later with better training, he finished 232nd. Though he never improved his time beyond that. He was 496th another year later in the Boston marathon, with a slower time than his second NYC marathon.
Again though, he was still training around 45 minutes a day, and significantly heavier than when on the Tour. Tough to make a direct comparison to his Tour days.
Furthermore, it’s not like he never ran before. He was a very good triathlete up until around 20 years old, before focusing on cycling. He may have been doing some running during his Tour years, as he did things not many would assume cyclists do, like weight training. He got back into triathlons once done cycling, doing very well in a good deal of them.
At the end of the day, I’m not sure we can use something like this. It’s too confounded.
There doesn’t appear to be much out there on this. I found one very well done master’s thesis though,
Sounds exactly what we’re looking for!
An important note in the title here is “Trained Runners.” For beginners, doing pretty much anything will increase their performance. We don’t care about beginners right now anyways. The scenario is a trained runner has something bothering them, preventing running. At least running like usual. If we replace it with something -hard to get much more specific than an elliptical- will that maintain adaptations so we can run as well once coming back from injury?
This study used high level high school long distance runners. At the end of their season, some kept on running, some did cycling instead, and some did the elliptical. Those who didn’t keep running were instructed to try to mimic their training as much as possible with the bike / elliptical. (Instructions got more specific than that, but that’s enough info for our purposes.)
A 3000 meter time trial was performed before the change in training and five weeks afterwards.
VO2 remained essentially unchanged after the cross training.
Ah ha! Cross training is beneficial! This is when we remember research, when feasible, should always look at the direct metric we’re interested in. Not indirect measures. In this case, we don’t care about VO2 max, do we? We care about performance in the 3000 meters. We care about running performance; not breathing performance. What happened for the running?
“The elliptical training group was slower, on average, by 47.9 sec (± 11.3 sec). The cycle training group was slower on average by 42.8 sec (± 6.3 sec). The control group was faster on average by 9.6 sec (± 8.3 sec).”
There was a dramatic decrease in performance, DESPITE maintaing VO2. (If you’re wondering, handling lactic acid didn’t change enough to reach statistical significance either. Though the small sample size distorts what’s significant in this study.)
This is where there is some value in thinking about Lance Armstrong again. It took him a whopping four months for his shins to recover after that first marathon. They were killing him during the race as well. (Remember that ten extra miles he never ran??)
Fatigue is in the eye of the beholder. Ask someone why they’re faltering in an event, and the answers can be endless. Trouble breathing, feeling too hot, muscles burning too much, muscle strain barking at them, tendon telling them to slow down, thoughts of “I could be watching Netflix and drinking a nice stout instead of this.” There’s no one answer for why someone can’t go faster.
For Lance, breathing wasn’t, and was never, going to be a problem. But, would his bones be able to handle miles of pounding when he was coming from a population -professional cyclists- who are notorious for having bone density issues?
How long would it take him to build this tolerance up? Bone can take forever to adapt. Just like we’ve seen a tendinous injury can take seemingly forever to heal. He needed to go through this process in a way specific for running- he needed to run. It’s not a coincidence after more than a year of training, his second marathon felt so much better. Those bones et al were catching up to his breathing. You can only go as fast as your weak point.
In a way, the answer is obvious. If you take a month two or three off running because of an injury, but maintain your VO2 max or [insert fancy metric], it doesn’t matter. You’re not going to run as well. You’re going to lose enough of the specific adaptations running gave you, and it will take some time to get those back. If your achilles is bothering you, maybe you maintain the ability of your thigh muscles to produce force over a long period of time with cycling, swimming, or the elliptical, maybe you maintain your VO2, but your achilles can’t be maintained, because you’re giving it time off / not pushing off with it in swimming / cyling / elliptical. You’ll only go as fast as your weak point once you get back into things.
-> Not to mention, immediately trying to do your PR after an injury has healed is a great way to immediately piss the injury off again, or create a new one, because you’ll overload some area. You have to build back up.
Asking whether taking a few months off running will impact your running performance is not the right question. No matter what you do, it will. No matter the activity, if you don’t do it, you’ll lose ability in it. When people say “it’s like riding a bike,” they don’t mean when you get on a bike after not being on one for ten years it feels like it did beforehand. They mean it comes back quicker than the first time you learned. But if you’ve gotten on a bike after not being on one for a while, you know not only can riding be a bit nerve-racking at first, but the next few days you feel like a hammer was beat on your legs and ass.
Where the right question, I think, is does cross training in the interim make you get back to your previous performance faster?
When coming back from the injury, you have to build that area back up. That’s one adaptation needing to occur. But is it beneficial to not have to deal with needing other adaptations? For instance, your heart’s ability to pump.
Or say you maintain your thigh strength, but lose some calf strength. Now when starting running again, you don’t have to adapt as much at the thighs because that was relatively maintained.
In other words, you’ve lessened how much stress you have to deal with once starting up again, where whatever stress you do impart, more resources can be thrown at it. Rather than your thighs, heart, mitochondrial density, etc. all needing to come back, you only need the e.g. achilles to come back. And your achilles can come back quicker since the body can throw more resources at it. Therefore, you overall come back quicker.
Of course, the converse of that is if, when dealing with the achilles injury, you’re pushing your VO2 max through the elliptical, then you’re taking resources away from the achilles healing. Is it enough to make an impact? That’ll depend, but excessive stress does impair healing. You might have to only cross train enough to maintain certain qualities. Maintenance tends to be less stressful.
Now, adaptation is extraordinarily specific. You might maintain your bone density through strength training, but the bone won’t exactly be organized like it will after adapting to running. So I’m really not sure how much this matters.
Looking at the forest rather than the trees might be the most relevant perspective. For many, cross training presents an opportunity to maintain their body weight, stick to a routine, keep up with general health, maintain their blood pressure, psychologically feel they’re still getting some good work in. That in itself could be worthwhile, and make coming back much easier. Whenever I have clients who are feeling off for one reason or another, I just about always recommend they still exercise, even if we cut the workout in half. I want them staying in the routine. It’s so easy to fall out of it.
Cross training is likely not making much of an impact, no matter how you want to look at it. At least if we’re talking strictly performance. Yet it’s worth doing.