To be better at running, you need to just run and get the ‘miles in your legs’ right? well, not quite actually. Runners of all levels benefit from including cross training in their weekly routine. Why? Because not only does cross-training reduce your risk of injury but also challenges your bodies aerobic capacity. Both will help you run better (and for longer).
What is cross training exactly?
Well it’s a broad, umbrella term covering many types of aerobic exercises (all that you can substitute for running) such as spinning, cycling, swimming, hiking. They don’t have to mimic running motions such as swimming, but you can if you choose to; running in the water or elliptical machine for example.
I know what you’re thinking ‘but I already have a gym session included in my training plan’ and that’s great because resistance training is imperative to improve your strength, muscular endurance and mobility; but its not exactly classed as an aerobic workout; more of a supplement to your running. So, keep your gym session! And swap a run for a cross training session if you can’t add another session.
University of Tennessee at Knoxville study found that training effect on VO2max (V02max is the maximum capacity a person’s body to transport and use oxygen during exercise) transfers between cycling, running and swimming. In other words, whether you swim, bike or run, you’re still training your body to use oxygen in a similarly effective way. So there’s nothing to lose by mixing it up a bit.
How to incorporate cross-training into your training plan.
Start with breaking down your week:
- how many days a week you can run without over stretching yourself, averaging 3 days per week.
- 1 day needs to be strict rest (more on this here)
- Fill in others with resistance and cross training (weights, yoga, swimming, cycling, pilates. Hiking – you know what I’m talking about).
(sometimes instead of upping the milage significantly in your running sessions you can add another cross-training session instead).
Cross-training doesn’t have to be complicated, or exceedingly long. You can add 20 minutes of indoor bike before your resistance training session, even cycle to and from work, or hike with your dog on the weekend. You can be really sociable with cross-training too; hey maybe your run friends will want to join your sessions (because your smashing your goals right now, no doubt).
*Also when thinking about training, it may be worth looking at your menstrual cycle and adhere to the hormones driving your body week by week as in some weeks it would be more beneficial to hit the resistance training and others it is optimal to cross train. For an in depth week-by-week guide on how to do this (click here) – bring a pen and notebook.
Cross training examples
Indoor cross-training options
- Swimming yeah, its unspecific to running ever it works and stretches every muscle in your body. It is an incredible aerobic exercise that is non-impact, excellent benefits without the wear and tear on your joints. Perfect too for helping to regulate breathing (a lot of new runners complain of unable to control their breathing rate, swimming can help you practise timing it).
- Elliptical, utilises similar movements to running without the impact, which makes it an incredible option for runners training indoors. A 2010 study from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research concluded that oxygen consumption is the same on the treadmill and the elliptical when exercising at the same level of perceived exertion. Many running workouts such as intervals can be done on the elliptical, meaning you can still get your speed work in even when you’re not running.
- A Rowing Machine is great for conditioning the upper body – there is movement driven and expected from the legs, but once momentum is gained there’s more emphasis on the arms back and shoulders. A great option for nursing an injury on the lower body, and its incredible for v02 max. I like to stick to interval training on a rowing machine to mimic my hill runs (because pumping the arms whilst running uphill helps to keep going!)
Outdoor cross-training options
- Hiking; I don’t just mean going for a quick stroll in a park. To be an effective form of cross-training, hiking involves walking uphill (and then back down) on uneven terrain. Hiking on steep terrain will work your aerobic system and strengthen the muscles you use for running. Climbing up steep hills strengthens your glutes, and strong glutes are essential for both flat running and uphill running.
- Cycling; whether you prefer the road or opt to mountain bike, cycling provides a fantastic cardio workout without any impact. It is also so simple to incorporate into your training plan, especially if you can cycle to and from work a few days per week. Then you can double up on your commute and cross-training! Cycling is also a great indoor activity, whether you pick the recumbent bike or opt for a spin class.
- Nordic skiing; did you know Nordic skiiers have the highest Vo2 max capacity in the athletic community? If you’re in striking distance of a cross-country ski hill, make this activity a priority. It offers runners who live in colder climates a chance to train outdoors in the winter and it takes a load off your joints (and about the only time I’d ever choose to live somewhere cold!)
Cross-training, injuries and Women.
It is a well known fact that females suffer from knee injures significantly more than men. This can be due to so many factors although most-commonly due to a muscular imbalance (causing biomechanical irregularities) and overuse/over-training in fellow runners.
And one piece of advice you’ll often receive as a runner with a niggling pain (and unable to rest because race day is looming) will be to consider cross training. Cross-training challenges the body in a different motion than it will be used to with running. You can:
- Strengthen muscle imbalances – change your running for a swim session; requiring every muscle in your body to get involved
- Reduce impact – trade pounding the pavement with cycling
- Reduce repetitive stress – swap an interval running session with interval rowing machine session (that will get the heart going!)
Cross-training whilst injured.
So your injured and cant run for a few weeks, it happens. Don’t worry! You can sill make race day and put in a dazzling performance many will be envious of. So many believe an injury is the biggest set-back, to de-rail your goals but its not – Cross-training provides you an alternative way to stay fit as your rehabilitate your injury (enabling you to improve your level of fitness during your injury time off; wow, right?)
What type of cross-training you do whilst injured highly depends on the injury you have. Stress fractures will limit you to a low/non-load bearing activities like swimming and cycling, whereas sprain, strains and tendonitis type injuries have more freedom. Please note it is important to speak to your physical therapist or doctor regarding which types of training you can do safely as you recover from your injury.