In order to maintain a long, healthy, and successful running career (whether you’re a “weekend warrior” or an avid marathoner), a certain amount of cross training is required. Cross training can most simply be described as planned aerobic and strength exercises/activities other than running. Most commonly these activities are low-impact or non-impact motions that allow for a bit of muscular and bone recovery. These can be particularly beneficial if you are dealing with any type of overuse or chronic (developed slowly and persists over an extended period) injuries, which are particularly common in runners with the miles upon miles of pounding their bodies endure. Low-impact or non-impact cross training activities take the pounding out of the equation while continuing to build strength and aerobic capacity. Swimming, biking, yoga, nordic skiing and climbing tend to be the most common cross training activities for people looking to reduce impact.
Cross training workouts can be integrated seamlessly into a week’s training schedule in place of a run or even in addition to a run in a safe, sustainable way. The most common cross training question asked of coaches is “what cross training is best?” There is no simple answer to that. The answer is dependent upon the individual and what the goal of the cross training is. For example, someone who doesn’t know how to swim may want to pick a different activity for cross training, and a person who has all of their strength focused in their upper body likely does not need to choose climbing. Despite all of these specificities in determining what cross training activities to add to your regimen, however, you should consider a few things about what YOU need and a few things about what THE ACTIVITY provides.
What do you need?
There should be a goal to your cross training routine: don’t simply bike because we tell you to or do yoga because there’s a cheap studio across the street from your favorite daily pie shop. When you know why you need to integrate strength training, you’ll be better able to choose the proper activities for the proper duration at the proper times.
Are you attempting to recover from an injury?
The initial key to an active recovery from injury is to start with exercises that produce no pain in the injured area whatsoever. Since running injuries tend to occur in the motion of running, this means avoiding any similar activities for a time. Focusing on swimming and biking are great alternatives since they are non-weight bearing and can still elevate your heart rate to the aerobic zone easily. Once you can tolerate a bit more weight bearing on the injured area, you can transition closer to running related activities and aqua jog (still non-weight bearing but duplicates the running motion while in water) or use the elliptical machine. A long set on the elliptical can be a great way to feel like you’re working very hard and “feeling the burn" (it’s no walk in the park) while also avoiding too much impact.
Are you looking to add aerobic “mileage” to your week without running more?
If you are an athlete with an injury-riddled past, you may not be able to achieve the full mileage load per week that you would like in order to meet your training goals. Cross training in this situation can be a great way to get in your necessary aerobic miles without risking a return to an injured state. If this is your situation, then your best option would be using the elliptical or gaining access to an Alter-G Treadmill (very useful machine that essentially props you up while running to reduce the percentage of body weight you’re actually running at). These activities will give you your best “bang for your buck,” most closely matching a 1-to-1 time ratio to running while biking may take 3x the time in order to get the same aerobic results as running.
Are you striving for additional muscular and mental variety in your training?
This is my own personal use of cross training in my weekly regimen. Running day after day can be mentally draining as much as it can be physically fatigue inducing. In order to add a bit of variety and also make your body more fatigue-resistant, a healthy dose of cross training is key. This reason for cross training also adds a bit of flexibility in activity. If your goal is variety, it is of course recommended that you keep mixing up your routine. This could mean a week of biking as your cross training, followed by a week of yoga, then a fun week of Cross Fit, and then wrapping up with a week of pilates before restarting your cycle. This variation in activity will also help develop the strength of those muscle groups not necessarily used while running. Muscular balance is a key piece of building fitness, speed, and injury prevention.
Now that you have a bit of an idea of what you need from cross training, it’s time to pick the right activity. What does the activity provide?
Is it aerobic in nature?
Teaching your body to effectively use its energy stores while exercising is key to developing as an endurance athlete. Part of this energy use education is reaching an aerobic zone for an extended period of time (60 minutes or more) in order to use your fat stores to fuel your activity. Even during cross training, the activity of your choosing should be able to mimic this outcome as closely as possible.
Is it no-, low-, or minimal-impact?
Training as a runner requires a certain amount of high-impact training. Otherwise when it comes time to race or run at all, your body will be so unaccustomed to the impact that it would certainly result in injury. However, this does not mean that every day and every workout needs to be ground-and-pound high-impact work. Reducing muscular and bone impact to a low level a few times per week with a good choice of cross training activity avoids unnecessary stress and promotes longevity of training.
Does the activity compliment your running and aid training goals?
An activity that does not simply match the exact same muscle activation of running is a great choice for cross training. The complement to running should be an activity that works other elements of your body outside of the gluteus maximus, hamstrings, calves, and quadriceps. Those muscles will already be strong and conceivably flexible from your normal training. Now is the time to work those oft forgotten muscle groups. Put in some extra work on your core, strengthen your deltoids and pectorals to do your best bodybuilder imitation, and don’t forget to work those arms!
Variety is the spice of life as all of those wise people say, so have some fun, add some variety and get to cross training! Ice sculpting, axe throwing, competitive bass fishing or tug-o-war every little bit helps!