Untangling the Recovery Process for Injuries, Healing, and Fitness

The following article was written by Ashley Brasovan, an elite trail runner for Hoka One One who enjoys training on the beautiful trails throughout Colorado. She is a graduate of Duke University and works as an Energy Efficiency and Sustainability Consultant in Golden, CO. Ashley is pictured above at the 2018 World Long Distance Mountain Running Championships in Karpacz, Poland.

On September 11, 2018, I answered the phone call from my doctor, friend, and former Duke University teammate who said, “You have a femoral stress reaction.” The dreaded words that no runner ever wants to hear. For once, I would love to hear something like, “You are completely dreaming of the pain. It’s a negative MRI!” or maybe even something like, “It’s just a mild hip flexor strain.”

Well unfortunately for me, I am 5 for 5 with MRIs being positive (and not in a good way), in my femur. A side note – the femur is the largest bone in the body and not that easy to fracture. However, I am probably on world-record pace for fracturing that bone. These were the cards I was dealt in life so I play them.

Ashley at the World Long Distance Mountain Running Championships.

Enter cross training. So, in my 1,000 hours of doing rigorous Google research (plus or minus a few hours), I found that there is actually very little information available on how to cross train and recovery properly during more critical running injuries. I am not a doctor, but there are a few things I have learned throughout my history of running and injuries that I wanted to share:

Take some time off before resuming cross training. This means complete rest for at least a few days. I typically take 3-7 days completely off and then lightly build into a cross-training regimen. This is critical to let the healing process begin. Also, make sure to allow yourself a 24-hour pity party if your sentence is longer than a few days (trust me, this is critical for the healing process, but no longer than 24 hours).

Establish your end goal. This is something that many people don’t actually think about. What is your cross-training goal or the purpose? Are you trying to maintain fitness, stay sane, recover, or do you even care? If you are reading this article, I am taking a wild guess that is probably isn’t the last option. It’s important to think about what you actually want to get out of the next few weeks, which determines how much you need to cross train and how often.

Look into determining the root cause. Think of this as a puzzle that you need to put together (hopefully), before your return to running. If it’s a bone injury, getting a Dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DXA) scan to determine current bone density and checking vitamin/mineral levels (ferritin, vitamin D, calcium, etc) is a good place to start. For most injuries, running form, shoes, training surfaces, increases in mileage or volume, and overuse can all be common culprits. Go back through your training log and see if there’s anything in there that sticks out as well. Determination of a root cause will help the injury from recurring when you return back to running in the future.

Build your cross training plan like you would build your mileage. You can stay fit while cross training if you let your body heal before going too hard. Progress into cross training like you would with running. Start with 20-30 minutes easy and build from there. There are many options for cross training – swimming, pool running, elliptical, biking, hiking – so find one that doesn’t hurt, or make your pain worse. For bone injuries, swimming or pool running is generally the best place to start and then slowly progressing to the bike/elliptical. For muscle injuries, testing out all options to see which one doesn’t mimic the running pain will give you a good idea of which route to take.

Listen to your body. This isn’t as easy as one may think especially if you start having phantom pains (pains that mimic the initial injury). Your body know best and gives you signals that you may have ignored before. It knows when it need more nutrition, sleep, rest, and blood circulation. Listen to it and don’t be afraid to back off to let the healing progress faster.

Stay positive! Mental happiness and well being is directly linked to the healing process. If you continue down a path of depression and anxiety, you are putting extra stress on your body that will slow down the healing process. Your body treats all stress – both mental and physical – as just that. Stress = stress. Rediscover some past hobbies, hang out with friends you haven’t seen in a while, have a beer with your co-workers, and do things to keep your mind off of running and the injury for a little while.

Again…I am not a doctor, but I can tell you that listening to your body and trusting its signals during the recovery process is critical for healing and progressing back to running on those trails as quickly as possible.

Ashley Brasovan, the 2017 USATF Half Marathon Trail Champion.

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