Spinning Your Wheels
by Matthew Dale
The elite Olympic runner has been there. So has the age-grouper who's constantly striving to lower that 10K PR. You get overly ambitious and rack up too many miles too soon. Or, in your need for speed, you dart to the track before you've established a base. The result? You're injured.
You don't want to lose that fitness level you've busted your backside to achieve, so how do you maintain a modicum of fitness, not to mention your sanity?
Doctors, exercise physiologists, coaches and athletes agree that elliptical trainers and indoor cycling (e.g., Spinning) classes help the runner stay fit without risking further injury.
Dr. Mark Bracker, director of sports medicine at the University of California at San Diego, knows that, come spring, a steady stream of runners make a pilgrimage to his office. They're training for the Suzuki Rock 'n' Roll Marathon, suffer an injury, then come asking the doctor to get them to the starting line. He often recommends elliptical trainers and indoor cycling. "It's almost impossible to suffer repetitive microtrauma to tendons and ligaments doing those activities," says Bracker.
Signing up for indoor cycling classes or spending time on elliptical trainers shouldn't be viewed simply as a rehabbing tool, however. They're excellent for cross training - and keeping runners away from the doctor's office.
"It's a non-impact and almost non-weight bearing workout," says Lenita Anthony, who has a master's in exercise physiology and is the program coordinator for the UCSD extension exercise science certificate program. Translated: she teaches students who want to become personal trainers.
Back in early 1996, Marc Davis was one of the first elite athletes to train on an elliptical machine. He was living in Portland, Oregon at the time, training under three-time New York City Marathon champion Alberto Salazar. Salazar was given one of the machines to check out and Davis became a guinea pig.
During Portland's wet, dreary winter, Davis did almost all his workouts, long runs, fartleks, intervals, on the elliptical trainer in Salazar's basement. With a heat lamp shining and two humidifiers steaming up the place, Davis referred to the room as "The Dungeon."
That spring, Davis set the 5,000-meter American record on the road with a 13:24 at the Carlsbad 5000, a record that still stands. Later that year, he qualified for the Olympics in the steeplechase.
"It's the closest device out there that simulates running with virtually no pounding," says Davis, now a coach for the San Diego (California) Track Club. "If a runner's going through an injury, this is the first thing I'd recommend."
Ireland's Sonia O'Sullivan, silver medalist in the 5000 meters at the Sydney Olympics, tried indoor cycling when she was 20 weeks pregnant. "Somebody said I might like it, and I did," she says.
O'Sullivan not only liked, it, she used it to maintain excellent fitness throughout her pregnancy. Barely three months after delivering her second daughter, she won a five-mile race in Italy, beating Gabriela Szabo, who had defeated O'Sullivan for the gold in the 5000 at Sydney.
Recalling her indoor cycling classes, O'Sullivan says, "It takes the stress off your legs and keeps your heart rate up."
O'Sullivan also liked the group dynamics of the indoor cycling class. The loud music. The positive instructor. The camaraderie. She did have one problem, though. Not too many of the students wanted to be pedaling next to a three-time Olympian. Joked the woman who holds all of Ireland's track records from 800 through 10,000 meters: "I think they were afraid my bike was going to move and I'd leave them behind."
There are precautions runners should take when using elliptical trainers or taking indoor cycling classes. If they're cross training while recovering from an injury, Bracker said they should let pain be their guide. If it hurts, don't do it. Give your body more time to recover.
Anthony, who teaches indoor cycling and certifies people to become Reebok Master Trainers, says you'll want to make sure your seat is adjusted to the correct height. You don't want your knee to lock on the downward stroke. If your seat's too low, you might suffer damage to the patellar tendon. Too high, you might hurt your back or hamstring.
Paul Huddle, co-founder and coach at Multisports.com, which offers coaching and camps for endurance athletes, was asked how many elite triathletes take indoor cycling classes or use elliptical trainers. Pausing only for a moment, he replied, "I'd say all of them."