Hitting the bike - either on the road or in the gym - can help build strength and endurance without the load-bearing wear and tear of repetitive running.
Once you’re hooked on running it can be hard to be convinced of the merits of doing anything different, but in fact variety is the key to making you run better and for longer.
Exercise that is different to running, but enhances it, is called cross training. There’s nothing not to like about cross training if you consider what it’s good for: injury prevention, rehabilitation, improving fitness, promoting recovery, boosting motivation - to name a few.
The hard part is making time in your precious running schedule to fit cross training in.
I talked to Boston Marathon legend Kathrine Switzer about cross training when she was in Australia to launch the Melbourne Marathon Festival recently.
“I talk a lot about cross training but don't actually do it much except for regular serious stretching before and after running, like a session of yoga or pilates on my own,” she says. “I don't like taking the time to go anywhere. I also do exercises likes wall squats, planks, leg lifts and ab work all at home or in a hotel room.
“Time is essential to most of us. If you have time to work out every day, sure, I'd say you'd be a lot better off if you ran four times a week and swam and biked the other times and could throw in two weight workouts a week, too. Sounds like a dream life to me! The problem is we all have to work for a living.”
Last year’s Sydney City2Surf winner Liam Adams runs 160km per week and that takes up most of his time.
“Strength training builds on technique, muscle activation, cardiovascular and running efficiency,” Liam says, “whereas cross-training is used more for injury prevention by training in other ways to help reduce the compounding stresses that we do with each step when running. I do a bit of strength training but don’t do any cross training work. I have thought about introducing some into my training program.”
Hmmm, two high-calibre athletes and not too much cross-training. How about marathon man Tristan Miller?
“I’m in the throes of training for the mighty Ultra Trail Mont Blanc in France,” he says. “It’s a 168km lap of Mont Blanc, starting and finishing in Chamonix. I’m a terrible trail runner, so I’m forcing myself to enter 100km trail races and pumping my way through 50-60km trail runs on the weekend.
“During the work week, I run three to four days, with Tuesday and Thursday mornings as the all-important speed sessions. I hit the gym a couple of times a week to strengthen my core and upper body, plus force myself into the occasional pilates or yoga class – I really need to do that more often!”
So even the experts find cross training hard to fit in on top of a running schedule. But still, it is worth trying to incorporate it into your program.
Positive Fitness coach and 3:04 marathoner Kathryn Holloway says this: “Pounding the pavements every day isn’t going to make you a faster, stronger runner ... quite the contrary. Cross training will in fact make you a better runner. Personally, adopting regular cross training into my regime has made me faster, stronger and much more efficient, with a lot less injury and even more motivation.”
Strength work is a form of cross training. Its primary benefits are injury prevention and improved running performance. “A lot of runners will shy away from lifting any weights through a misguided fear that strength workouts will make them bulk up,” Kathryn says. “This isn’t quite true. Strength training does increase the size of your muscles, however combined with endurance training or some kind of aerobic training, the two cancel each other out so bulking up is very unlikely. The right strength program will add no weight and will make you a stronger, more efficient runner.”
As much as we love running, too much can become a little boring. “Variety is the spice of life and cross training will help you maintain your drive and enthusiasm,” says Holloway. “The more motivation you have the harder you will train, so if you don’t feel like running one day and feel like swimming or cycling instead that’s great.”
Believe it or not, working out doesn’t increase your fitness level, it’s recovering from the workouts that does and this is when the magic happens.
“Walking or some such low-intensity workout is a great way to aid recovery, especially on the days you feel tired,” Holloway says. “Non weight bearing activities like swimming give the legs and running muscles time to recover, while also being excellent for cardiovascular improvements.”
One of the loudest laments you’ll hear from a runner is that they don’t stretch enough, but Holloway reckons it works a treat. “As a runner it’s a controversial topic and many folks have disagreed about the importance of stretching. It works for me, though, and many others I train. Every runner should stretch regularly.”
Personally, I am a fan of my gym’s Body Balance class that combines deep stretching and balance work, as tight muscles are a curse for runners. If only I had time to go more often ...
A good example of cross training is cycling. Do a Spin class or just use the stationary bike at the gym to get excellent cross-over benefits for running. Cycling is non weight bearing and low impact, and it develops aerobic fitness. It also builds strength in the quads that balances the hamstrings and calf strength that is gained from running.
“Intervals on a bike are a great way to improve leg turnover and ultimately improve speed,” Holloway says. “Runners should ensure they cycle at cadence of between 80 to 100 rpm. Don’t worry about trying to push a big gear with a low cadence, it’s more beneficial for a runner between 80 and 100.”
So if you want to still be calling yourself a runner in years to come, perhaps it’s time to jump on the cross training bandwagon too.
Has cross training helped your running?
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