Most runners and walkers will benefit from doing some form of movement that is not walking and 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 or a sore knee 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 fitness and 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!
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.
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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.
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