Cross Training for the Off Season | September 19, 2012
So it’s November already. Where’d the time go? Where’d the season go? The weather stopped cooperating a few weeks back. The racing schedule has thinned out to almost nothing. It’s hard to get out of bed to run early in the morning before it gets light, and just as hard to run after work in the dark. Since the trails are getting a little spooky, you’re pretty much stuck running down the street in the cold rain with a flashlight dodging traffic. Who needs that? Better to sit on the couch, feel that hard earned fitness slip away, and let the holidays creep up over you the way your stomach is going to start creeping up over your belt buckle.
Or…you might use the off season for some cross training, that is, sprinkling some non-running workouts into your running routine or even switching over altogether to another form of exercise or sport for the winter. The time you spend cross training is not necessarily time you lose from running. In fact some types of cross training can actually enhance your running fitness. Swimming and biking, for instance, are super cardiovascular workouts, along with running in a pool or using equipment like a stair stepper or elliptical machine.
Cross training tends to work muscle groups that get bypassed or underutilized if all you ever do is run. Strengthening alternate muscle groups can improve your overall running form, balance over developed running related muscles, and even prevent injuries that can result from the imbalances. Older runners in particular can benefit from upper body and core work that, if ignored, can lead to a serious decline in overall strength and resilience. Non running workouts also give your running muscles a well-deserved break and a thorough chance to rebuild. Also if you choose a low-impact exercise, your super critical ankle, knee and hip joints all get a break from the daily pounding that running can deliver.
If you’re forced out of running for a time because of an injury, you can use cross training to keep up your level of fitness and fight off the frustration that many runners feel when they’re sidelined. I once had a bad groin injury that kept me out of serious running for a couple of years. The inability to run was a serious bummer, but it put me in the market for some other high voltage, competitive activity and I discovered mountain biking. I went whole hog into grinding up steep hills, learning how to shred technical trails, endurance riding in 24 hour events, and x-country racing. I eventually emerged from the injury running stronger than ever. The biking was great strength training and, if anything, improved my cardiovascular fitness. I also had a whole new discipline under my belt and a set of new exercise buddies.
Cross training, whether done as a whole alternative sport or just sprinkled into your running routine in moderate doses, is a terrific mental break from running, which can get tedious and boring if that’s all you do. Breaking up the daily run routine with some weight-lifting, rowing, or swimming, for example, gives you a whole new set of skills to focus on and gets you into a different atmosphere with a different group of people. Once you step away from running for a while, you’ll be able to return to it with a different perspective. After I had to be away from running for an extended period, I found I was much more enthusiastic about running and had a greater appreciation of the sport. But even the short breaks from running you get from trading one weekly run in for a cross training workout will stave off burnout and make you eager to get back out on the trails.
Look at cross training as a chance to embark on some new adventures. You can even get jiggy wid it. I got out my ancient unicycle, which I’d learn to ride as a kid, and now I’m riding around the block every other day, doing wonders for my equilibrium and drawing wondering stares. (At first I looked like a windmill stuck on a wheel, waving my arms to keep my balance, but I got over that in a few rides.) Maybe you have an old skill you could resurrect?
I also couldn’t resist jumping into a triathlon (swim, mountain bike, run) though I’d had way too little swimming and biking training at the time. On race day I experienced the gut check of wading into a cold lake and treading water waiting for the start. I felt like a fish out of water IN the water. I was practically in last place after the swim getting to the transition area. Then the field was so far ahead of me on the bike, I could barely follow the poorly marked course through the woods and lost more time. Near the end of the bike leg, I went to make a sharp turn and skidded on some sand right at a volunteer holding an arrow to direct the bikers. I watched his face registering several degrees of panic as he dove for the bushes. At the last second my tires gripped the concrete and I cornered back on track like the Roadrunner avoiding a cliff while Wile E. Coyote sails right through his dust out into thin air. I was relieved to get to the run, which was a little 5K around the lake. I could see all the other runners spaced out ahead of me. Right from the start I was surprised to find that I was MONSTER RUNNER. It was like the Twilight Zone episode where the guy has a stopwatch that freezes everyone in place but himself. I passed people like they were jogging backwards all the way to the finish.
I went back the next year a much better swimmer and biker and thought I just might collect an age division medal with my new talents and my incredible dominance in the run. But when I got to the run, I could barely keep up. It hit me that the year before I’d been so slow in the swim and bike that I was at the back of the pack with only the slowest triathletes. No wonder I’d looked so good in the run!
The point is, don’t think of cross training as some dreary obligation that is keeping you from running. Think of it as something that will enhance your running both physically and mentally, and give you new opportunities for some great adventures.