In May, Allison Lind was training for the New York City Marathon, where she hoped to run a sub-2:46 to qualify for the Olympic Trials. She finished a 16-miler feeling especially tight. The next day, she had an intense, stabbing pain in her inner right thigh.
An MRI led to a devastating diagnosis: a pelvic stress fracture. "I've been running since I was 10, so being told not to run for six months killed me," says the 27-year-old New York City physical therapist.
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Being sidelined—whether it's for days, weeks, or months—can turn any runner's world upside down. But as hard as it is to realize when you're relegated to the elliptical machine, being down can have an upside.
"My injury helped me become a better athlete," Lind says. "It forced me to cross-train. I've added swimming and cycling to my training, and now I'm in much better shape."
Yet for Lind, the best silver lining was rediscovering her love of the sport. "I tell all of my injured patients, 'Just wait. You're going to appreciate running so much more,'" she says.
Injury Upside No.1: You Cross-Train
Most runners pour all their energy into the sport they love most and aren't willing to give a new activity a shot—until they get hurt and take up cross-training to maintain endurance, burn calories, and stay sane while sidelined.
But there are additional benefits that carry over to running. "You can derive power from your upper back, shoulders, and core," says Lind, who treats athletes at New York Sports Medicine and Physical Therapy.
"If you're able to use your core and upper body to propel you, you'll be able to run faster and longer with less effort." In fact, research indicates that runners who complete a six-week core-training program have faster 5K times than the runners who don't do the strength work.
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When you get the green light to run, don't abandon cross-training. Lind suggests alternating running with swimming, pool running, or cycling. Even when you're fully recovered, keep one cross-training day on your schedule.
And piggyback activities like yoga, Pilates, and weight-training to the end of easy runs. Short on time? Twice a week, cut back your run by 15 minutes. "Even 15 minutes of strength work is beneficial," Lind says.
Injury Upside No.2: You Finally Listen to Your Body
Sticking to your training plan regardless of how you feel is a common mistake that often leads to injury. "The body has a threshold for how much exertion it can handle," says Annie O'Connor, director of the musculoskeletal practice at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.
"Runners often overestimate that threshold and run through pain." While you're rehabbing an injury, you become more conscious of your limits. "During physical therapy, we're testing for pain," O'Connor says. "When an athlete does an exercise, we ask how they feel, what discomfort they experience, and if it fades or if it persists.
Depending on the answers, we back off or move ahead. This helps athletes become more in tune with their bodies—particularly their trouble spots—so they can prevent future injuries."
At the first sign that something's "off," stop running for two to three days, O'Connor says. Cross-train instead. When you head out again, start with a walk/run at a slow pace.
"If you can walk/run for 30 minutes with no pain—and none the next day—gradually build your pace and distance," she says. Continue to check in with yourself. You may have a little stiffness when you first start, but ideally that will fade. The goal is to have no pain after your run or the next day.
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