Updated: May 29
Most active people fear getting an injury that prevents them from doing their usual training. With Achilles tendonitis, walking as well as running can be painful, and it’s difficult to figure out how to deal with this. This article explores the benefits of cross-training to maintain fitness while you recover from your Achilles injury.
In this article:
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What happens to my body when I can’t train?
When we train, our body adapts to the activity we ask it to do. That’s why a weight lifter can lift increasingly heavier weights and a runner can run further or faster. We adapt to exercise through the supercompensation cycle (see picture below).
When we partake in sports like running (cardiovascular activity), we adapt by increasing our aerobic endurance (maintaining a high rate of oxygen uptake) and by improving our running economy (needing lower amounts of energy to move at a given speed).
These training adaptations are not permanent. Reducing or stopping the training load results in a reversal of the gains we’ve made. This is a two-way street – as soon as we start training again, the body adapts and once more we are able to do more.
This reversibility can happen in as little as 2-3 weeks, and it can cause a significant drop in strength or fitness by 8-10 weeks.
What is cross-training?
Cross-training refers to using other types of exercise to produce similar results to those of your normal sport/activity that you can’t do at the moment. When we are looking at specific conditions like an Achilles tendinopathy, we would also look for cross-training activities that don’t put so much load through your Achilles tendon that it triggers a pain response.
There is not much in the way of research that tells us what cross-training activity to pick for specific conditions, but examples of cardiovascular exercise that don’t load the Achilles tendon as much but would give the same adaptations as running are cycling and swimming.
Your Achilles tendon works like a spring, storing energy and then releasing it as we push off during jumping, hopping, or running. Cycling and swimming do not work/load your Achilles tendon in this way and therefor tend to be more comfortable.
How can cross-training help?
Cross-training needs to be used in a similar way to your current training. So, you should use a similar exercise intensity and frequency (how many times per week). It is important to phase in a new activity, as a sudden increase can cause problems. This cross-training activity should then maintain your cardiovascular fitness/strength while you can’t run, walk, or do your normal activity.
Remember to monitor your Achilles symptoms during this new activity and for 24 hours after, trying to keep these at a niggle or low level increase, if any. This means starting slowly and monitoring and building it up over time. It is important to gain professional advice on this.
Summary of useful hints for cross-training
Choose an alternative exercise that mimics the same training adaptations for your cardiovascular system as the one that you can’t do.
Train a similar number of times per week
Train at a similar intensity
Ease into this new activity to avoid further problems
Monitor your Achilles tendon for its pain response.
How we can help
Need more help with your Achilles injury? You’re welcome to consult one of the team at TMA online via video call for an assessment of your injury and a tailored treatment plan.
We're all UK Chartered Physiotherapists with Master’s Degrees related to Sports & Exercise Medicine. But at Treat My Achilles we don't just value qualifications; all of us also have a wealth of experience working with athletes across a broad variety of sports, ranging from recreationally active people to professional athletes. You can meet the team here.
About the Author:
Coyle, E. F., Martin 3rd, W. H., Sinacore, D. R., Joyner, M. J., Hagberg, J. M. & Holloszy, J. O. (1984). Time course of loss of adaptations after stopping prolonged intense endurance training. Journal of Applied Physiology, 57(6), 1857-1864