Most runners will benefit from doing some form of movement that is not running. Commonly called cross training, this 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 and can not run for instance), is a supplement to your primary activity to reduce the chances of overuse injuries (as cycling is for many), 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. Strength training can be used to build both pure strength and mobility, and to improve conditioning.
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 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:
Cycling 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’ on what should be more of a recovery day and depending on the coach, form and technique can be an afterthought.
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 incidents. Always use common sense, be alert and take no chances with cars (impact with a car, no matter who is at fault, leaves the cyclist at greater risk for injury).
Pool running is 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 athletes as the feeling of weightlessness and the hydrostatic pressure feel good on the body.
Pool running also works as a strength drill, as resistance in the water helps build your 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. Pool running is highly recommended for injury prone 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. I feel so passionate about the benefits of strength training for age group runners (and especially masters), that I have started my own strength training educational path so that I can develop a simple program for runners and walkers.
For people currently in the RunSport clinics you have probably been introduced to the hard style version of the regular plank, a movement I introduced this year to help people connect to their core strength and how it relates to their strong posture. The plank is considered a bodyweight strength movement. It doesn’t require any equipment, needs a space only as long as your body, and like most body weight movements, the risks of injury are minimal.
The hardstyle plank, where you are tensing all the muscles in your body for 10-20 seconds as you hold the position, improves your balance, mobility, and strength. Not only are you building strength for running, but the stability will improve your strength for all your daily activities (lifting a vacuum cleaner, taking groceries out of the car).
From the elbows down plank, you can progress to arms straight, one arm, one leg, and then opposite arm and leg up.
Strength training for runners has two purposes: it can focus on the specific needs of an athlete with biomechanical imbalances to help overcome or prevent injuries, which promotes more consistent training and hence, improvement. Strength training done as a compound, multi- joint movement, like deadlifts, single leg deadlifts or kettlebell swings (not your standard gym machine stuff, where you are just sitting down and isolating one muscle group) will promote a balanced and strong body for improved performance. Performed correctly, barbells and kettlebells used for lifts and pushes or ballistic training, requires you to brace the core strongly and this results in a strong posterior chain - your back, glutes and hamstrings, which is a huge benefit for runners.
While runners often gravitate towards squats, squats are a fairly complex movement that can put extra strain on a runner’s tired body, especially the knees. The deadlift teaches us how to hinge at the hips correctly, and increases strength for the action of running. Matt Pearce talks about the benefits of deadlifting for runners here in this Training Peaks article. Like the plank, deadlifting will also make you bulletproof for lifting boxes on moving day.
I encourage runners and walkers to find a strength and conditioning expert when starting a strength program. Someone who is knowledgeable of the Functional Movement Screen testing (FMS), which is the observation and testing of 7 basic movements in order to assess strengths and weakness, and who can help you find a simple but effective routine that works for you.
A good strength program can be fit into a 30 minute window 2-3 times a week, and the payoff with a strong posterior chain and great mobility will be noticable. Not to be confused with Olympic lifting, or weightlifting, proper strength training for runners will not cause you to gain weight, nor will it compromise your cardio training. Your muscles will become stronger and denser, your mobility will improve, and your posture and stamina will create a strong more injury resistant platform for your endurance training.
There are a number of things you can do outside of your sport specific training - of running and walking - that will help decrease your chances of injury and increase your chance of improving. Starting a stretching program is one of these practices. For athletes, stretching refers to the elongation of tissue, which can either be muscle, fascia, or nerve tissues. Stretching either helps us maintain our flexibility or improves it, and can be done in a number of ways.
Like all things training - stretching is a subject with many opinions and views, from how to stretch, to how much to stretch, to whether you need to stretch at all. Stretching is beneficial to athletes, both as a pre training warm up, and as a way to aid recovery.
Sports science has shown us that muscles work by stretching – it is the essential action for our muscle to perform. The stretch, and the range of motion (ROM) of each muscle around the bone to which is attached (the joint) dictates our flexibility. So our flexibility refers basically to how much our muscles can stretch and the range of motion that each joint has.
Flexibility varies immensely from one individual to the next, and some of it is just the body we were born with. Even when you were a kid you probably noticed that some of your friends could do the splits, or do back bends, and some couldn’t, and everybody notices that flexibility decreases with age and when they have done intense training. Increasing your flexibility is a way of keeping your body young and supple, and of allowing it to perform better and more pain free.
Each individual has an optimal flexibility and range of motion that promotes a healthy pain free body. Issues with inflexibility are generally a feeling of tightness in the muscles and joints, pain and injury. Tight muscles do not function to their full range, and will affect the range of motion in a joint, which means that speed and power are compromised, as will be the natural efficiency for movement. Working on maintaining your body’s unique flexibility will allow you to perform better, recover faster from workouts, and may reduce the risk of injury.
We stretch to
How to Stretch
Stretching will improve muscle flexibility and performance but it is very important not to overstretch, and not to stretch overly tight or cold muscles. Overstretching is counterproductive in athletes, and causes little micro tears in your muscle tissue that can lead to more soreness and injury.
Some people prefer to stretch before and after workouts, or some: only before, or only after. Generally it is easier to stretch muscles when they are warmed up a little, after about 10 minutes of light exercise.
There are two types of stretching we will consider for this post: dynamic and static.
Dynamic stretching, or stretches that are actively engaging training movements, are usually done before training. Arm swings and leg swings are examples of dynamic stretches. Walking lunges are also dynamic stretches for the hip flexors.
Static stretches are those that are held for several seconds in order to help muscles return to their normal state, and are usually done after training. You can do these stretches right after a training session, but also at the end of the day. When my children were little, I would stretch while playing Lego or other games on the floor. University athletes can often be found stretching on the floor with an open textbook in front of them.
The main muscles groups in running and walking that need to be stretched properly are:
Quadriceps and Hip Flexors: these are the large muscles in your thighs and at your hips, responsible of the dynamic movement of running and walking.
Glutes, Hamstrings and Piriformis: the muscles in your buttocks, hips and the back of your thighs react to the movement of your front of leg muscles contracting. Working on improved flexibility in these areas can help prevent the lower back pain associated with running and walking.
For some great photos of post training stretches for these muscle groups, this Runner’s World article nails it.
Soleus/Gastrocs (calf): the muscles on your lower legs affect the function of your knees, feet and ankles, which is important to the impact of running and walking. Stretching these muscles before and after running can go a long way to keeping your legs stable.
Pecs and Deltoids: muscles in the upper body and torso, and shoulders. While upper body isn’t as crucial, you want to avoid tension through the neck and shoulders so arm swings and shoulder stretches can help you stay relaxed, which helps posture and breathing.
When and how much to stretch is going to be something that you learn through experience. The recommendation is to start gently and be conservative, stretching a little before and after workouts. Often, busy people neglect to stretch at all, but rush away from a workout to get back to work or home for dinner. Taking a few extra moments to stretch your muscles post workout will, like post recovery nutrition, enable your body to recover faster and better from the session, and set you up to improve.
Run for Joy!
Nutrition, food, and diet have all become much more complicated than they need to be. What should I eat before a workout? When should I eat before a workout? Should I drink during workouts? Will eating Vegan make me leaner, faster or feel better? Do I need to change my diet before starting my first race? Is beer bad for you? What is Paleo eating? AAAH.
The world of nutrition and particularly sports nutrition has exploded over the last twenty years as more and people have taken their health seriously and become involved in physical activity for fitness and the internet has been able to deliver information that was previously reserved for elite athletes, or only found in the dusty science journals and on microfiche at the college library. Information that the top athletes in the world have used to improve and maintain strength, fitness and health is now available to anyone with an internet search engine.
With our present concerns about our health and longevity there has also been an increase in the numbers and types of special diets out there, diets that are meant to increase our energy, personal power, stamina and lean mass. Here then, are some common sense nutrition basics - bearing in mind that that special diets, food intolerances and allergies are beyond the scope of this post.
Eating to Feel Well
Still the oldest and most common sense idea in the book is the idea of looking at your body as if it is a fine tuned machine similar to a sports car. The type of gas you use has a direct correlation to how well the engine runs. Looking at food as fuel, the concept is that you want to choose foods that nourish and support your body and the training you desire to do. You can also train to eat, which is also a driving force for many people: they enjoy food, fine dining and sweets, and training is one way to manage their weight and health.
For performance I prefer the eating to train version, as it puts the power with you, the individual, to make healthy, informed choices about what you are putting into your body without being obsessive. Over time, the emphasis on good choices leads to overall feelings of wellbeing in training and out, and the habits stick for good, merely because you feel better and your engine runs better. And having fries and a burger one night while out with friends at the pub, isn’t going to kill you because you consistently take care of yourself.
The other aspect to nutrition is portion control: something that North American society has lost almost completely. The rise of fast food, discount shopping in bulk, and mass consumption turned bigger into better for everything, including food. Most people eat too large portions for the amount of energy they expend each day, even active people. Because of the emphasis on eating more, and eating quickly, people have forgotten how to understand when they are full and to stop eating before that point.
Simply put, you only need to eat as many calories as you burn in one day. Eat more than what you use and you gain weight over time: eat less and you gradually lose weight, especially lean muscle. You don’t even have to count calories. A healthy person can listen to their body, know when they are hungry, and can eat accordingly, stopping when they are full. However, to reset our bodies from over eating to moderate eating for health, might require a good Nutritionist and diet plan at first, in order to create the new habits.
Doing exercise is a great way to learn how to eat better. After training, you will often feel hungry, since you might not have eaten for a while and your body is looking for energy to replace the energy it just spent. Making good choices, and fuelling your body slowly and with good quality food, will teach you to listen to your hunger signals and to take care of yourself well.
Good choices: There are many resources out there for nutrition and food choice, but Nutritionists recommend choosing whole foods as much as you can. Fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grain rice and pastas and bread, eggs, lean unprocessed meat like steak, chicken breast, pork and turkey. Food that is as close to its natural state as possible is the rule to follow. The less packaging, and the fewer ingredients, the better. Think a grilled fresh chicken breast, with fresh steamed broccoli and brown rice over a highly processed Pizza Pop. A bagel with peanut butter and banana is a better choice than a packaged cookie, muffin or granola bar.
The basics to eating for energy are to have a general diet that is nutritious, whole, and in line with the energy that you expend each day. I like to add that for most people, sustainability and pleasure should also be considered. Don’t obsess over the perfect diet. Eating a strict diet that restricts foods you love (unless you have a real food allergy that makes you sick) isn’t a whole lot of fun, and takes a lot of energy to plan. I like this article that looks at our relationship with food.
Fuelling to Train
For general training, there are 3 key aspects to sports nutrition: 1. eating and hydrating before workouts, 2. eating and hydrating during workouts, and 3. eating and hydrating after workouts. If you have limited time to train, you want to make the most of each session. Being nutritionally ready to perform is very important. For the scope of most training under 2 hours and for events of under 90 minutes hydration and nutrition are not as crucial to success as they are in longer endurance events like ultras and Ironman where athletes will run into depletion during the course of the event, therefore what follows is general good advice that will be a starting point for the beginner.
Eat before your workouts: You want to start workouts with energy to complete the session, but you don’t want to feel full or have stomach upset from something that you ate. Aim to consume 60-100 grams of carbohydrates between 1 and 3 hours before your workout. (I.e. one energy bar and a piece of fruit or a bagel with jam and a piece of fruit.) Keep the foods high in carbohydrates and low in protein and fat. Your goal over time is find the right foods and timing that work for you as you will replicate this nutrition on race day.
Workout timing has to be taken into consideration. Early morning workouts require only an early breakfast taken prior to training, while evening workouts means paying attention to nutrition and timing throughout the day. If you train after work (but before supper) you may need to have a pre-training snack (fuel) about an hour before training, especially if lunch was over 4 hrs prior. Timing your lunch to fall 3 hrs before you afternoon training session is a good practice. You want to avoid skipping breakfast and lunch if you are doing afternoon training sessions. The caloric shortfall to missed meals will leave you depleted and weak in your training. During busy days at work, count backward 1-2 hours from the estimated time you will get to your after work session, and have a snack ready: banana, small sandwich with peanut butter and honey. Over time you will find what works best for you and stick with that.
Hydrate before workouts: it is proven than being dehydrated negatively affects performance. Even a 1% loss in body weight due to dehydration will slow you down, so become friend with your water bottle! Sipping on water will keep your hydration levels up, but sports drink, and even juice, contains electrolytes that are more effective at hydrating your body. 1-2 hours before a training session, ensure that you have drunk about 500ml of fluid. Drinking too much too close to a workout doesn’t give your body time enough to absorb the fluid. Fluid will either slosh around in your stomach and create cramps and a full feeling, or will hamper you with bathroom breaks.
Fuelling and hydration during workouts: For sessions over 90 min or in really hot climates people will need to consume about 200-300 calories per hour for optimal energy to complete the session successfully. A sport gel has an easy to use pack of 110 calories and a blend of Carbohydrates and electrolytes that are scientifically formulated for endurance sports. One gel every 30 minutes of exercise, taken with 8-12 oz of water is recommended and proven to be beneficial to sport performance. There are many gels on the market now, in a variety of flavours. Take the time to find the one that works for you and that you like. Drink 8 oz water or an electrolyte drink every 15 minutes for the duration of the session.
Every person has a different rate at which they sweat, and there are 2 basic methods of seeing if you are getting enough fluids.
1. The urine test: if your urine is barely yellow, you are well hydrated. If it is dark yellow, you are not hydrated enough.
2. Weigh yourself before and after exercise. The amount of weight lost is equal to the amount of water lost. For each pound of weight lost, you need to replace with 20oz of water.
How to Carry Liquids and Gels
Walking and running present their own problems as carrying a water bottle in your hands is cumbersome and throws you off your natural balance. There are excellent bottle carrying belts on the market now, ones with comfortable wide waist bands that hold several smaller bottles. For long runs over 90 minutes I recommend taking water with you as it will increase your enjoyment and performance of the session.
A lot of running shorts and tights have small pockets build right into them, perfect for carrying along one or two gels.
Eating Post Workout
Plan for and aim to eat within 15 minutes of completing your workout or race. The food you eat should contain some protein, be high in carbohydrates and 150-300 calories. High carbohydrate foods will replace the glycogen your muscles need in order to repair and recover from the stress they were under during your training session. Refuelling right after a session helps your body recover faster from the session so you are stronger and more ready for the next day. When you are able to train better you will improve faster and will be setting yourself up for success at your race. A common strategy is to have 200-300 calories ready to consume at the end of the session: a smoothie, banana, or small sandwich.
On a personal note, when I was racing full time, I saw the full spectrum of dietary habits. I saw athletes eat barely anything at all, vegetarians who were the pickiest roommates ever, and athletes who survived off massive amounts of fast food and slurpees. I roomed with athletes who hated the onerous job of eating and only ate one food group and those who ate everything in sight, including any left over food on my plate. There were athletes who meticulously ate the exact same food before every race, and those that ate whatever was served them. I am obsessed with words and dictionaries more than I’m obsessed with food, and I am not a Nutritionist, but as a retired ex elite athlete and coach, in the end, I still approach food with common sense, encourage people to avoid fixating about the perfect diet, and to just enjoy the process of creating habits that support their goals.
Over the course of my career, there were many times when I didn’t have a coach next to me, giving me cues, or keeping me on track. I ran as many miles alone as I did with my training group. While we have lots of classes, coaches, clinics and leaders in the fitness world, learning to be independent, and your own best coach is a good skill to practice. This week I share some of the things that contribute to developing a sense of independence - and confidence - in your training.
The ability to be paying attention to what is happening right now, fully accepting of it, appreciating it, and not wishing for anything more, or for it to be different. Particularly, to not be distracted by ‘thinking’ - by music, your outside environment, or your unhelpful thoughts.
I believe it is really important for people to develop this skill of mindfulness in training for several reasons. Mindfulness brings your attention to what is happening with your body in the moment. When you are mindful, you are more likely to be relaxed and without tension, and this will improve your body’s ability to move effectively. When you are paying attention, you will notice when something isn’t quite right - like a small ache or pain - and you can stop and stretch, slow down or stop before it becomes an injury. When you are mindful you aren’t distracted my multitasking, and this is both powerfully beneficial to your mental health and helps increase your intrinsic enjoyment for training. If you are mindful you don’t ignore a pain that will become an injury.
There is another quality to mindfulness, though, as it pertains to your goals, and priorities.
I feel there is a helpful correlation to mindfulness and learning to train by perceived effort. This is beneficial for beginners to aerobic exercise as it will teach you to listen to your body - and it is simple and gadget free. At first, even a slight increase in pace will feel hard and uncomfortable, but over time you will find that your body is adapting and you can go comfortably for longer. The other benefit to training by perceived effort, and not being a slave to that screen on your wrist, is that your body is not a robot. Sleep, stress, age, coffee, and other environmental factors can affect your heart rate, causing confusion and sometimes stress in athletes trying to attain unreasonable rates of work based on what they think they should do (that is, based on a quantitative system of improvement for the sole sake of compiling data). “I ran this loop at x pace last week so I need to run it at x pace this week, or I did x miles last week and I want to do x miles +n - no matter what). Learning your own effort levels in the absence of a coach is a solid start to training and staying healthy.
As Olympic marathoner Lorraine Moller puts it in her wonderful article about self-coaching called Becoming a Body Whisperer, “All champion runners can tune in to their bodies' signals to such a high degree that they have the ability to optimally divvy out their effort over the distance required using precise split-second decisions. They don't have the time or mind-space during a race to check their monitor data, make a cell phone call to their coach and wait for him to call back with instructions on whether to increase or decrease their pace after downloading it into a computer. Nor would they want such a clumsy system when their inner technology is so much more sophisticated, speedy and accurate. Although such a scenario is laughable, many runners proceed as if this were the case and fall apart when the race requires them to be self-reliant. By contrast, every champion athlete, almost without exception, is an expert body whisperer whose trust in their internal abilities of gauging effort, pacing and timing is unwavering”.
Spend some time training alone and by feel
Training without a watch, or any technology will help you tune into your effort, and help you learn to trust your instincts about pace. Train on your own, without a watch, without HR monitors, music or any gizmos. Choose a route you know will take you roughly the amount of time you need for one of your aerobic easy training days. It doesn’t have to be exactly the 20 or 30 minutes, but close, within 5 minutes. If you don’t feel comfortable training without a watch, because you are new to the sport and do not know your routes, you can wait and do this session when you have some data for the routes that you do often - like in your neighbourhood or around a park. Another option is to do smaller loops - time yourself for one loop. Now you know how long it takes, roughly, to do this loop. Now go do the loop again as many times as you think you need in order to hit the prescribed training time. Or simply go out and back. Wear a watch on the way out, then take off the watch and train by feel and effort for the way home.
Aerobic development is important, but not to the point where you injure yourself
To walk or run long distances, the development of the cardiovascular system through aerobic endurance sessions is necessary, but also unique to individuals. Some athletes can work their way up systematically and gradually and logically into high mileage, some people will always break down after a critical point of volume.
Learn to avoid volume for the sake of volume, (which I believe is governed by the law of diminishing returns for anyone not training as a full time athlete, or over the age of 45). Avoid overtraining through too high volume by listening to your body and having a flexible mindset with your training log. Aches and pains that persist 24/7, fatigue, constant injuries to your knees, ankles and hips, and a general feeling (called intuition or gut feeling) that you are not making gains by training so much, means you need to limit your volume, or at least find a way to satisfy your aerobic needs by cross training. Long trail running hikes (where your pace is really easy, and interspersed with walking), hiking hills in the off season and pre-season in order to build aerobic capacity and lower limb strength and resiliency (Mt Doug, Mt Finlayson, Caleb Pike etc), and cycling will all give you the aerobic benefit you need, plus the strength required for fitness walking and running.
Don’t be a sheep
One of the greatest challenges to group training environments, is what I call the ‘fastest common denominator effect”, where the pace of the group is dictated by the fastest participants. Been there, done that, a thousand times. I have warmed up too fast, done long runs way too fast, cooled down too fast and gone out too hard over and over and over again. As a coach, I either encourage everybody to warm up at the slowest pace possible to keep the group together or in the case of particularly persistent ‘fasties’ I let the ‘fasties’ get ahead and learn for themselves that leaving their best training in the warm up isn’t the optimal way to get stronger. I’m known for saying at the beginning of warm up: “No one goes ahead of Coach Lucy”
Good training habits have wonderful application to real life. Really listening to yourself is a huge confidence building skill. Knowing how to tune into your body, and just appreciate its movement and strength, and let the distracting thoughts go is a positive mindset in a world full of comparison and distractions. Learning when to back off without judgement from a too fast pace, a too energetic training partner or a too long long run, is one of the best skills and gifts you can absorb. For one, it is refreshingly free of ego, to be mindful and to train at a pace that is right for you, instead of clinging to the idea that you have to ‘keep up’ to count. It reduces anxiety (will I be able to keep up; will I be able to complete this?) and it frees you up for listening to your own body and perceived effort.
And finally, here are my Top 3 suggestions to being your own best coach
1. Commit to getting good sleep; many studies have shown than consistent sleep and bed time routines enhance healthy bodies and ability to train. Training when energy is high is optimal. At least for key sessions.
2. Pay attention to eating well. Fuel with a good uncomplicated diet of nutritious food. Plan fuel (calories) for late day sessions so you don't show up hungry.
3. Make patience your mantra: hard work, commitment and practice are still the best guarantees to success.
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