Cross Training for Runners
Cross Training………..? You mean you should cross train on top of all the running you do? Who has time to add more to the schedule when there may also be a job, family and other life commitments?
I regularly speak to clinic members at the local running establishment here in North Toronto and have been doing so for about 15 years. I always start my Cross Training talk with the question “How many of you do an activity other than run for fitness? The answers have usually shocked me. When I began these talks all those years ago, I had one or two people raise their hands. Fast forward to present day and there are more and more raising their hands, however it is still approximately 50%.
Many runners begin cross training only when they BECOME injured and are desperate to keep that endorphin rush going. This is always a great time to get started, but an even better time is to start before getting injured. If you are not new to cross training, you won’t need the time to adapt and can work hard. The other good reason to start before you get injured is that you won’t resent having to do something other than run because it will already be an activity you enjoy doing.
Here are the top reasons why cross training is beneficial for runners:
- Injury prevention
Using muscles other than those primarily stressed by running is a great way to prevent injury. Running primarily uses the hamstrings and calves (back of the legs). Yes, contrary to popular belief, the front of your thigh (quadriceps) is not the primary muscle group worked except when running downhill. By cross training, you can take some stress off the posterior muscle groups. Such activities like cycling, swimming, and rowing, will use muscles not always used in running. (more on this later)
- Injury Recovery
When you are injured, it is great to be able to keep moving. Doing an activity that does not stress your injured area in a negative way is imperative to keeping the blood flowing. Increased blood flow aids in healing. Not to mention, it maintains our sanity!! The ability to keep active and still get that sweat on keeps so many injured runners from wanting to “kill” those they love most! Take my word for it. My husband has on more than one occasion threatened to move out or move me out when I have been unable to run!!!
- Improve Muscle Balance
Doing strength training and yoga is an excellent way to improve balance in your muscles. Certain muscles are usually tight (hamstrings, calves, hip flexors), while other muscles tend to be weak (deep abdominals, side hip muscles otherwise known as gluteus medius and butt—gluteus maximus). Targeting these muscles with exercises like squats, single leg squats or lunges, plank, side plank, and single leg bridging to name a few will help to reduce chance of injury. Strengthening these muscles also promotes improvements in stability during the foot strike phase of the run cycle. This also reduces your chance of injury. Stronger leg muscles will help you run faster, power up that hill stronger and help in those last few miles of your long distance race.
Flexibility is also important to keep you injury free. The good news for those anti-stretchers is that excessive stretching can be counterproductive since excessive length = instability. Our bodies function best with a little spring in them, and this is helped with some baseline “tightness”. For those of you reading this who note hamstring tightness by just putting the leg out on a low step or can’t even fathom sitting cross legged you likely need a little bit of flexibility work ! Start with a few repetitions after a run of the major muscle groups (hamstrings, calves, quadriceps, hip flexors, and side of the hip/ITB). You can easily find these online by searching for running stretches or searching each one individually.
Trying a new activity can be fun. When I was just running, I found that it got a bit monotonous at times, particularly when training for a long distance race such as a marathon. Cross Training can lead you to new activities, new sports (that is why I got into Triathlon…..I loved the variety of the three sports), and meeting new people. With the nicer weather trying hard to arrive, it is time to get outside and attempt something new. Rollerblading, playing a sport like tennis or soccer, swimming, and cycling, are just a few activities. If you enjoy racing and the thrill of crossing the finish line there are a ton of triathlons, and cycling events both racing and charity that you can train for and participate in. You never know, you just may unleash a new athlete from within!
Top Cross Training Activities:
- Cycling –uses quads and hip flexors primarily and with high cadence can mimic the turnover most recommended for efficient running (80-90rpm for cycling= 170-180 steps per minute for running) .
- Elliptical – good for rehabbing injury with cross over to running without the impact. Keep cadence high with resistance low to mimic run motion. Be careful if it stresses the area!! Don’t do it if you are trying to totally rest a run injury especially in the acute phase
- Swimming- excellent full body exercise. Very little stress to most running injuries.
- Yoga- excellent for flexibility and core strength. Finding the type you like the best is can sometimes be a challenge. For online yoga try www.yogaglo.com. Otherwise, there are many studios around that provide different types of yoga.
As with any new activity, make sure to gradually increase the time/distance/intensity so as not to get injured! I have on more than one occasion managed to get an injury by trying to overcome one……..
Happy Cross Training!