Over the past couple of years I have worked with some athletes who struggle to get out of doors for training due to work commitments, the weather, childcare commitments etc. Over my career as a Probation Officer, I saw many people leave gaol far fitter and healthier than when they went in due to their focussed gym training. More recently it has become clear that there may be many of who will not be able to train outdoors very much if at all. However, it is still possible to maintain a good training regime and see some gains in fitness by indoor training.
So how can we maintain fitness or improve our fitness if we can’t go outside much if at all? Whilst indoor training doesn’t replace training outside, you can still maintain a good level of fitness using one or a mixture of the following exercises:-
1) Turbo Training
If you are lucky enough to own a turbo trainer/smart trainer you can make some really good fitness gains using one. The most basic type would be rollers, which are tricky to balance on (but that’s not necessarily a bad thing) with high end versions including automatically updating the resistance to combine with a pre-set work out. Whilst this can be bread and butter training for cyclists year round, turbo training can create fitness gains that are highly transferable particularly to trail running. Excluding rollers they can be a safe way to really push yourself to the limit because you can’t fall off.
Combined with a training app like Zwift they can also be a good way to add a social and competitive aspect to your indoor training.
A word of warning however, it can be very easy to over-train using this type of training, for a start because each session tends to be shorter so the temptation is to train hard every day, but also because it’s easy with apps/numbers to get drawn into racing/competing every session. So if you want to train every day with a trainer like this make sure you stick to two or maximum three harder session in a week and make the rest of your training easy.
2) Running Machine
If you have a running machine your only obstacle to fitness will be overcoming boredom. Providing it goes fast enough, all running workouts can be performed as easily on a running machine as outdoors and can help improve your cadence due to the movement of the running surface. For Zwift users, there is a running version so that you can still feel connected with others and compete.
A running machine won’t emulate exactly the strength and conditioning that you need for trail running, in particular down hill running and running over tough terrain, but this is probably the best option to stay/maintain running fitness when you are limited to the time you can spend outside, especially if you combine it with other strength based exercises (see below).
TRX are a great tool to have for strength training in doors; they have the added advantage of developing balance and proprioception as well. The TRX app is also a good resource, offering a variety of workouts and videos for people at all levels of fitness. Because they are light weight and take up little space, this is a strength training tool that you can take with you where you go, all you need is a solid, safe point to hang them from. As a complement to a cardio regime TRX can be a great way of building core strength.
4) Circuit Training
Circuit training is a popular way to train and can be adapted to focus on either cardiovascular workouts or strength training. Indoor training doing just one thing (like stairs) can be really boring so having a mixture of exercises can help motivate you. In addition, especially for trail running, you can work a variety of muscle groups to help prepare you for being out on the trails. Here is a combination of exercises that you can do with no extra tools that can help keep you fit and ready for the trails:
- Stairs – running up and down stairs is comparable to running up and down hills/mountains. Varying the number of stairs you touch on the way down is also good descending practice, provided you can do so safely.
- Step-ups – like stairs this mimics to a good extent the action of running up hill; again varying the number of stairs/height of the step up is a good way to increase your ability to clamber up rocky terrain.
- Star Jumps – going from a crouched position up into the stair jump works both your legs and your arms; the coordination involved is also helpful brain training for running on difficult terrain.
- Skipping with a rope – using a variety of hops, fast skips and alternate legs is good cardio and strength training combined with coordination training of jumping over the rope.
- Hop and stick – this is a great exercise for increasing both your balance and ankle strength – essential for good descending.
- Jumping – if you can focus on landing mid foot, dropping but not striking the heal and rolling through the foot and pushing off with the toes is good practice of the stretch/reflex action needed in the calves for running efficiency.
- Once you have perfected the above jumping action, you could try hopping as a progression.
- Jumping up one (or two) stairs from the standing position with feet together.
- Burpees – like star jumps this is a good combination of coordination, strength and cardio exercise.
- High knees – if you focus on keeping your back straight and head upright whilst performing this action as quickly as possibly not only will you be working your heart, you will be practising the quick action needed to reduce the time your foot is in contact with the ground when you are running
5) Strength Training
Strength training is a really good complement to any training regime to prevent injury and to maintain muscle strength especially for masters athletes. The ideal strength training is maximal strength training, but this requires some equipment. If you have a good set of free weights the following exercises are a great complement to running:
- Romanian deadlifts/Single-leg deadlifts
- Single leg squats
If you don’t have free weights, there are still some good exercises you can do using your body weight including but not exclusively
- Single leg squats
- Romanian deadlift (with no weight)
- Planks, facing downwards, upwards and on each side.
- Single leg bridges
Whether you are using weights or not it’s always very important to have good form with these exercises. If you are not sure, you can look things up on YouTube, but use a reputable video (e.g. like CrossFit) or qualified Physiotherapist’s Personal Trainer’s site; use a mirror to check that you are doing things correctly and never compromise form for weight. Always ensure your back is supported when lifting heavy (e.g. use a weight lifting belt).
If you have a good, safe flight of stairs that you can run up and down this can be a great (if somewhat boring) exercise that mimics the action of running up and down hill. You can do some great sessions on the stairs as follows:
- Jog slowly up focussing on good running form then run relaxed down
- Jog slowly up focussing on good form then run relaxed down, but only touching every other step.
- Run hard up the stairs focussing on driving the arms and jog relaxed down. You could try doing this ten times or 3 sets of 5, 6, 7 or 8.
- Run hard up the stairs then hop and stick going down (ie pause on one leg on each step for a second).
7) High Intensity Interval Training
High Intensity Interval Training (or HIIT) is based on short bursts of high intensity work with a period of recovery, not dissimilar to the concept of short track intervals or 30 second on 30 second off interval training. These workouts are brilliant for people who really like to go all out and also for those who are short on time; most sessions are 30 minutes max.
There are loads of videos and apps where you can follow a prescribed work out or you could do your own version based on the circuit training exercises listed above.
8) Running Drills
As a session in their own right or as a warm up to any of the above sessions, running drills are a good idea to introduce into any running training programme all year round, as they improve running efficiency and form, training the brain to adapt to good running technique so that this becomes automatic and you can get the most speed out of the minimum effort. If you look up running drills you will find lots of different ones to try and learn. The ideal is to pick ones that can be progressive and I personally prefer ones that mimic the running action as closely as possible. My own preferred set of drills is as follows:
- Balance – balancing on one leg for 30 seconds. Progress to doing this in the running position (running arms and legs), then to turning your head from side to side, then to reciting days of the week/timestables at the same time.
- Foot rolls – whilst walking across an area anywhere from 3m to 10m take small steps focussing on landing mid foot and rolling through to push off with your toes, avoid heal striking. Progress to doing this fast and faster.
- Marching men/Stick Men – this is the perfect running action in slow motion, raising each knee to 90 degrees as you step forward slowly and carefully – focus on good angles for your feel and bent leg (90 degrees), straight back, neutral head position, looking forward with running arms.
- Marching men/Stick Men + Heal raise – as above but after raising the knee, lift your heal off the floor as if you were about to push off with your toes; focus on engaging your glutes as you raise your heals. You can progress this to a skip once you have perfected the technique.
- Jumps – feet hip width apart jump on the spot focussing on landing mid foot, dropping the heal (but not heal striking) to stretch the calves and rolling through the feet to push off with your toes for each jump.
- Hops – as above, but try on one leg.
Aerobics may seem outdated and very 80’s but in fact it is a very good way to get a good endurance work out at home. There are follow along videos that last up to 90 minutes; 90 minutes of continuous exercise would be a great way to maintain a base level of endurance and could replace a long run if you are stuck inside. You could design your own workout using some of the circuit training exercises listed above or simply follow along to a video.
I started practising yoga in 2012 as a way of introducing some strength based exercises into my training regime and have to say I really enjoy it. It can be a good complement to both running and cycling and using your own body weight to build strength requires no extra tools. There are many different types of yoga; my preference is for Ashtanga yoga because I like the balance of movement and holding the pose that this provides. While I know a lot of people like going to classes, I started by following an app on my phone (Naked Buddah). I actually find doing yoga alone works better for me because I don’t get distracted by trying to do the pose as well/better than others in the class, but work within my own body limits. This is really important, whilst you need to feel the stretch and strength in a pose you must never over stretch or continue in a pose if it is causing pain, this is a good way to get injured.
As a form of meditation, I also find yoga to be very calming. The breath helps me think about breathing more efficiently when I’m training and the balancing exercises really help me stay stable when I am descending.
So as you can see there are a number of different options to help you train, maintain fitness and get fitter whilst never leaving safety of your own home. Whilst the ideal is to get as much practice as possible in the sport your key goal is in, life is always a compromise and doing a combination of the exercises above will help you enjoy the benefits of exercise even if you can’t get out much/at all.
How much should I train in doors? By their nature most indoor activities are more strenuous either because you are using a greater variety of muscle groups of because you are doing them at a higher intensity. Whilst you can train every day in doors make sure you intersperse your harder sessions with some light days, like yoga and/or recovery sessions. As with outside training, it is not efficient to train hard every day.
How do I manage my temperature in doors? Without the benefit of fresh air and a cool breeze training indoors can be compromised by over-heating. Make sure you stay well hydrated both before, during and after any exercise, open windows and if you can afford it have a fan near a source of cool air blowing in your direction.
What is the injury risk of indoor training? As with any training, there is always a risk of injury if you overdo it, do too much too soon or continue exercising when there is muscle/joint pain beyond what you would expect from doing the exercise. Always build up new exercises gradually (regardless of how fit you are), stick to 2 to three harder session per week, eat and sleep well and stop if you are concerned about any pain. If you are recovering from an injury of have any other pre-existent health issues always consult your doctor of physical therapist before starting a new exercise programme.