For most of my career, I used cross training as a way to supplement or even replace running, during times when I could not sustain my usual run mileage. There were various reasons that I had to reduce or eliminate running from my training schedule and the most common of these reasons was for injury, during the late stages of my pregnancies and post partum, or when I couldn’t find my running shoes. I am kidding about the shoes, but my point is, that I used cross training somewhat reluctantly for the most part, and as a last resort activity, when I could not run train.
After I discovered triathlon and duathlon and started competing professionally in these sports as well, cross training in biking and swimming became part of my training regime, and allowed me to train with more volume without getting injured, gave me strength, and I set my fastest times in road running and track, off a very strong, and periodized running and cycling program. Swimming was very good for my over all trunk strength as well as being an excellent low impact form of recovery.
Cross training can be viewed in several ways. It is either an alternative to your primary activity when you can’t do that (pool running when you have plantar fasciitis for instance), is a supplement to your primary activity to reduce the chances of overuse injuries (as cycling was for me), or closely linked to this supplementary aspect, cross training is a way to improve overall performance in sport by utilizing other movements and energy systems.
Cross training activities for runners and fitness walkers, can include elliptical trainers, pool (water) running, swimming, hiking, cycling, cross country skiing, in line skating and strength training.
My current view as a coach is that some form of cross training is highly beneficial for most age group athletes, especially those over the age of 40, and instead of becoming a last resort activity to stop you from going bonkers when you get injured, should be incorporated as part of your training year round, with particular emphasis on this activity for parts of the year. Focussing on training movements in something other than your primary sport is good for you: it gives your body a break from the repetitive actions of your favourite sport which may promote longevity in that sport, and it allows you to work on perfecting another activity and become more efficient at it. Just as you get good at running by running 4-5 times a week, if you focus on riding a bike for a similar amount of time, your skill and ability will improve in that sport and you will be able to get more out of it. It’s a great emotional and mental break to allow yourself to fine tune another skill as well, as well as the satisfaction of mastering a new challenge.
A few notes about cross training activities:
Biking is an excellent cross-training method for cardiovascular fitness and leg strength and has a similar workout feel to running, with a higher recruitment of muscle fibres. Cycling can be done indoors with your bike on a stationary trainer, on a spin bike at the gym, or through a spin class. Due to the high intensity interval (sweat and burn) nature to spin classes, I don’t advocate these sorts of classes during your regular training, as they leave you feeling ‘destroyed’ and there is little focus on proper form, or technique. Cycling as cross training should be done on a bike that fits well, and there should be a period during the training where you focus on good form - single leg drills, high cadence spin with efficiency for example --and generally, very aerobic riding with a good spin cadence (over 90 RPM) is optimal
There are two ways you can implement cycling into your program - as a low impact supplement to running, you can just 'spin' (high cadence and easy) as a rest and recovery workout, or you can find times of the year to train like a cyclist. That is, perform short and long bike intervals, hill repeats, sprints, tempo rides, and long base rides up to 4 hours. This would be the sort of training you would periodize into the year, simply because you love riding or you know that riding improves your strength, and it’s a nice break to let one type of training take a back seat.
If you do ride, please wear a helmet, a light at night, ride safely and defensively and obey the laws of the road. Most accidents are preventable. Always use common sense, be alert and take no chances with cars (in an accident with a car, no matter who is at fault, the cyclist is at greater risk for injury).
I have covered a lot of kilometres pool running over the course of my career, and found it to be one of the best ways to maintain run fitness and feel when getting over injuries and while pregnant. Pool running or water running is a good cross training activity for running and walking, as it mimics the style and action of your form, but is non-pounding, and is good for most injuries - like sprained ankles, bad knees, achilles, plantar problems. It is excellent for pregnant athlete as the feeling of weightlessness and the hydrostatic pressure seems to just feel good on the body. Pool running also works as a sort of strength drill, as resistance in the water helps build your core strength, and running specific muscles. Pool running is a favourite of runners because it closely mimics the action of running without the pounding, is safe, and you can replicate intervals and workouts well. Most runners come back from pool running to land running very strong, as the extra resistance on the hip flexors helps to develop strength. Pool running is highly recommended for runners who like to train every day; substituting pool running minutes for land running minutes is a good way to reduce overuse injuries due to repetitive running.
A note about form in pool running. Start with a pool running belt just to ensure your form is good, and stick with an upright posture, driving the knees up and down piston style, more than slowly pulling them through the water. Use your arms as you would with running. This short video demonstrates the pool running technique well.
These low impact trainers are found at the gym, and, after a period of adaptation, can be used to easily replicate run and walk training. You may need 3-6 sessions on the elliptical in order to feel comfortable enough to feel like you are training, and if you find you like the elliptical it can be an awesome way to cross train. I love the new trainers too -- you can hike all over the world using the video displays!
And finally, strength training will be the most valuable cross training that you can do. Strength training for runners has two purposes: it focuses on the specific needs of running to help prevent injuries, which promotes more consistent training and hence, improvement, and it should be compound, multi- joint movement, like squats or kettlebell swings (not your standard gym machine stuff) that promotes a balanced and strong body for improved performance.
Strength is a topic that needs it’s own post, so tune in to next week’s blog, where you will get some expert information and advice on the Current Concepts in Strength Training.
March 1, 2018
Promoting running and physical activity one joyful heartbeat at a time!
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