Cross Training, How and Why | August 20, 2012
Newcomers to our sport often find that their enthusiasm for ultrarunning knows no bounds. They happily contemplate years of nothing but running. They’re spinning in a positive feedback loop like a hamster in an exercise wheel. Train, train, train. Run, run, run. Race, race, race. They might be well advised, however, to hold their horses just a bit.
If they were to survey a random sampling of veteran ultrarunners, they’d probably find that many of those runners have not stuck strictly to running for their training. A lot of ultrarunners have found that mixing in some cross training has helped them stay sharp as runners or even helped them stick with running when others became burned out on the sport and drifted back to the couch. Cross training is the pursuit of some kind of exercise routine other than running, such as swimming, cycling, or weight lifting, and there are many reasons why ultrarunners might want to cross train.
Running engages a specific muscle group in a specific way over and over again so that a runner becomes extremely efficient at running but at the same time can develop imbalances or push the running related muscle groups into overuse injuries. Quads can become so strong in relation to hamstrings that the hamstrings are set up for pulls and tears. Upper body muscles can become neglected to the point that proper running form suffers. Core muscles can weaken, especially as runners grow older, to the point that problems crop up in the hip area as the well developed lower body muscles place too much of a strain on mid body muscles and connective tissue.
Cross training can address these problems by targeting certain muscle groups with strengthening exercises and by reducing the amount of time that the running related muscles are exclusively stressed during training. Weight lifting can be used to selectively strengthen particular muscles, such as the hamstrings, or to maintain upper body strength in general. Swimming works muscles from head to toe but is very effective at strengthening arms, shoulders, and chest muscles. Mountain biking is a tremendous workout for the legs but also delivers a surprisingly good workout to the arms and shoulders, especially when riding a more technical course. Targeted calisthenics can be used to maintain core strength, a particularly important goal for runners as they age and experience a natural decline in this area.
Are there other reasons for cross training? Absolutely. Nothing is more frustrating to a runner than an injury that keeps the runner sidelined for a long period of time. The temptation to “run through” the injury or jump back into a normal routine too quickly as the runner feels his or her hard won conditioning slip away is enormous. Cross training offers a way to maintain a given fitness level while giving an injury time to heal properly. Swimming and cycling both deliver excellent aerobic training and share the added benefit of being non load bearing activities. Its possible to engage in a full cardiovascular workout without unduly stressing the injured area, since all the severe pounding and stress to the foot, knees and hips that running involves is avoided. A running related injury can often be rested and rehabilitated while pursuing a whole course of upper body exercises. It’s possible to return from an injury with enhanced overall body strength and the ability to hold better form in the late stages of a race
Another excellent reason to develop a fresh set of skills in an activity other than running is to have an alternative should running become stale, repetitive, or less compelling. Many runners have found that chasing high mileage week in and week out becomes burdensome and even counter productive. Just as you should vary your running routine to avoid getting bored by the same old routes, you can switch to a whole new discipline from time to time to keep yourself engaged and challenged. Training for a triathlon, for example, can ramp up your overall fitness level while getting you out among a whole new group of competitors and potential friends. If you take a yearly break from running, you can cross train during the break and return to running refreshed and with your fitness level intact.
Whatever cross training activity you choose, be it swimming, cycling, Pilates, weight lifting, calisthenics, skiing or stair climbing, be sure to learn safe and effective practices for that discipline. Just because this activity may be your secondary interest, you shouldn’t slight learning how to do it well, and you certainly don’t want to cross train to avoid running injuries only to injure yourself doing something else. If you jump on a mountain bike, for instance, it should be good equipment that has been properly set up for you by an expert, and you should have a proper helmet, clothing, gloves, lights if you’re riding at night, and the rest, just like riding was your number one pursuit. Runners who have never had formal swim training find that taking some instruction in correct technique vastly improves their swimming experience. Weight lifting too should be practiced with some care. Using proper form while lifting makes for a much more efficient and effective workout than if the lifting is done in a sloppy manner.
The fact remains, however, that running is the best training for running, and it’s possible to run happily for a very long time before there is ever a need to cross train. But cross training is always there as an option, and you might be surprised at how training hard at some other sport can actually wind up enhancing your running experience. You might also discover that shredding a gnarly trail on a mountain bike in the middle of the night at some 24 hour endurance event has its own unique charms.