Workout Ideas for Beginning Runners or Those Recovering from Injury

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Senior Airman April Wright runs on a treadmill at the Southside Fitness Center at Ramstein Air Base, Germany.
Senior Airman April Wright, 37th Airlift Squadron aviation resource management, runs on a treadmill at the Southside Fitness Center at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, June 14, 2021. (Airman Jared Lovett/U.S. Air Force photo)

If you run as part of your regular training, you will inevitably suffer a sprained ankle or knee, or an overuse injury such as tendinitis, shin splints or a stress fracture. At least 50% of regular runners are injured annually, sometimes from trauma such as a fall, but more often from overuse. Some non-impact training options must be considered regardless of how you injure yourself.

Here is a workout I like to do with both beginners to running and those recovering from injury but not yet 100% ready to run.

This workout will give you all the cardio and leg activities you may be accustomed to with half of the impact. Buffering the impact is another option with softer ground options like grass, dirt trails, rubberized tracks or turf while recovering, or progressing with more miles instead of running on concrete or pavement.

Warm up with 5-10 minutes of nonimpact cardio such as on a bike, elliptical machine or rower. I use the bike on this workout, as the added leg exercises added to the circuit make for a great way to work the strength or muscle stamina of your legs as well. For instance, after the warm-up/stretch:

Repeat five times.

  • Bike five minutes (use a variety of intervals*)
  • Jog five minutes (consider softer ground or a treadmill for decreased ground-impact forces)

Leg exercise option:

If your knees hurt:

  • Add in one minute of kettlebell Romanian deadlifts

If your knees do not hurt:

  • Add in one minute of kettlebell squats
  • Add in one minute of walking lunges

*Type of bike intervals:

  • Tabata: 20 seconds sprint/10 seconds easy for five minutes
  • Fast/Slow: One minute fast/one minute slow for five minutes
  • Pyramid: Increase the resistance or speed each minute on the minute for five minutes

With minimal transition times, this workout will take an hour to complete. During high-mileage cycles in running, consider cutting the impact in half (or more) but still get all of the cardio if you are feeling the aches from the impact.

Another option if you need less than half of the running, consider the Triathlon Training Method:

  • Bike 10 minutes
  • Run 10 minutes
  • Use the elliptical machine or swim 10 minutes

If you want to make two-thirds of your cardio nonimpact, the triathlon method works exceptionally well, especially for new runners who need to improve cardio conditioning but cannot handle the impact of more miles. This method has been instrumental in helping athletes become better runners. For instance, former strength athletes who are bigger than the average athlete can improve cardio performance significantly and not tax their shins and joints when beginning a running program.

My story of a former powerlifting football player transitioning to a special ops candidate in the military began with doing the triathlon method. Preparing for the 1.5-mile timed run and the 500-yard swim after years of lifting, sprinting and contact sports was "long distance" for many of these athletes. I was no different. After 6-12 months of running, biking, swimming, dropping weights and adding calisthenics, I became a competitive candidate to continue the Navy SEAL training and preparation pipeline without typical overuse injuries.

Some athletes are not built for long-slow distance aerobic base running. The Triathlon Training Method was a great way to get all of the aerobic base training with one-third of the impact. You can eventually evolve to the Special Ops Triathlon Method, a Run, Ruck, Swim (with fins) training trio using this method.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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