The title of this blog post will probably sound a bit paradoxical to some of you. Often, we associate injury with rest and recuperation, including time off sport. Whilst true – and important – cross-training is typically used as a way of maintaining a base level of fitness, so that we don’t find ourselves at square one when getting back from injury. However, there’s a fine line when it comes to cross-training that is commonly crossed, leading to over-training and a cycle of exercise addiction. I want to explore and expose this in today’s post, using my own (current) experience.
Before starting the post, I just wanted to remind you that I’m not qualified in any way. When recovering from an injury, it’s best to seek advice from a professional (GP, physio, coach etc) to ensure you get the optimum balance.
In the initial phases of an injury, you will typically experience what I like to call the “injury frenzy”. The panic typically prompted by the first signs of a niggle, the first painful run and the first time you have to cut a session short. Every possible injury will run through your mind, and – especially if you’re a hypochondriac like me – you’ll immediately assume the worst. Such as a stress fracture. But, once you go to see a physio, this frenzy will typically die down as you get some (hopefully reliable) answers. Once you have guidance, you feel like you can re-introduce some structure into your life – both a comfort and a risk. Because this is when the over-training cycle can start, without you even realising it.
I know I felt pretty dejected when I first got my hip niggle. Sport in general, but running more specifically, was not only a hobby of mine, but also a stress-reliever and mood-enhancer. When I first got my niggle, I had a mid-season week’s rest scheduled in anyway, which helped reduce some of the inflammation. This initial period of total rest is important, I think, as it gives your body a chance to recuperate. Because, let’s be honest, injury often comes from a period of increased intensity – which may or may not be linked with over-training or season transitions – and is a sign that we have overdone it slightly. Overloaded our body, a bit too much a bit too soon. However, I know that I also rely on sport to boost my mood and stay fit. The solution when injured? Cross-training. Simultaneously a best friend and a worst nightmare.
Cross-training comes in many forms, but basically entails low or non-impact sport that you can (ideally) perform while injured without making your injury worse. My favourite forms are swimming, cycling (on the stationary bike) and aqua-jogging (although I’ve only done this a couple of times). It’s enabled me to maintain a sense of routine – not rigidity, though – as well as keep doing sport. I can still get those endorphins, push myself, get “PBs” and see my strength improve. However, I’ve also found it pretty tempting to try to push myself that bit further each session. At times, I’ve definitely been treading the line between trying to maintain fitness, and trying to over-compensate for the lack of running I’m doing.
When I speak of being reliant on running for health and happiness, this does sound like addiction. It brings into mind ideas of dependency, accompanied by unhealthy connotations. The line between passion and obsession is so fine, it’s almost invisible. What to others might seem like addiction, to me might seem like passion, and vice versa. I think the key marker of difference between passion and obsession is being able to take a step back and still be a happy human being. Not feeling lost or worthless without your sport.
An addiction to running, whilst injured, can lead to over-training, since you try to make up for the lack of miles you’re running through your cross-training. Sometimes, cross-training becomes a form of punishment for not being out there on the grind. Typically when injured, we spend more time exercising than if we weren’t. This can be because, to reap the same rewards as running, often you do need to be cross-training for longer. But, on the flip side, people who are injured tend to eat less, either consciously or subconsciously, usually because they perceive themselves to be burning less or “less deserving” of food. Over-training coupled with under-fuelling, as we all know, leads to RED-S and a higher risk of injury, which is why people may get stuck in an injury cycle.
The interest of rest
When I first started cross-training after my week’s rest, I think I was so happy to be exercising again that I took it a bit far. It was only when a fellow injured friend reminded me that I needed to take easy days as well as tough training days – even when injured – that I realised what I was doing. I think we get so caught up in the fact of not running, that we equate it with not exercising, ignoring the cross-training we are doing. Cross-training gets painted as a lesser form of exercise, and we treat ourselves with the same lack of respect whilst injured. Punishing our bodies for what they can’t do (run), whilst overlooking what they can do (heal, allow us to live, cross-train etc).
Even, or especially, when injured, we need to remember our rest days. Our nutritional practices, such as snacking regularly and consuming a balance of macro-nutrients. Our easy days. Our sleep. How can we expect our bodies to heal if we are pushing them to the limits and depriving them of the R&R they need to recover? If you ever get drawn into the injured over-training cycle, remember this: your body is amazing, it can do so much and has done so much already. But it is not a machine, and you need to respect your rest as much as you respect your training regime.
I hope you’ve found this post insightful, and if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to DM me! If you’re currently injured and some of this has resonated with you, I would recommend speaking to a coach or qualified professional who can help you get the balance right.