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Cross training to maintain fitness

A time most active people fear is when an injury occurs which prevents them to complete their usual training. For Achilles tendinopathy this can mean that walking as well as running can be sore and it’s difficult to know what to do. This blog explores the benefits of cross training to maintain fitness whilst you get advice about specific exercises and activity (load) management for your Achilles.



In this article:

  • What happens to my body when I can’t train?

  • What is Cross training?

  • How can cross training help?

I've also discussed it in this video:



What happens to my body when I can’t train?


It’s important to remember that when we train our body adapts to the activity we ask it to do. That’s why a weight lifter can progress the weight they lift or 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 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 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.

The Achilles works like a spring, storing energy and then releasing it as we push off during jumping, hopping, or running. Cycling and swimming does 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). In addition new activity is important to be phased in as a sudden increase can cause problems. This cross training activity should then maintain your cardiovascular fitness / strength during a time that 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 this at a niggle or low level increase if any. This means starting slowly, monitoring and building it up over time. It is important to gain professional advice on this.


Summary of useful hints for Cross training:

  1. Choose an alternative exercise that mimics the same training adaptations for your cardiovascular system as the one that you can’t do.

  2. Train a similar number of times per week

  3. Train at a similar intensity

  4. Phase into this new activity to avoid further problems

  5. Monitor your Achilles for its pain response

Let me know if you have any questions. Need more help with your Achilles injury? You’re welcome to consult us online via video call for an assessment of your injury and a tailored treatment plan.

Best wishes

Alison

About the Author:

Alison Gould is a chartered physiotherapist and holds an MSc in Sports and Exercise Medicine. You can follow her on LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.




References

  1. 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

  2. Mujika, I. & Padilla, S. (2001). Muscular characteristics of detraining in humans. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 33(8), 1297-1303

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