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Why Runners Should Embrace Cross-Training

Alternative forms of aerobic exercise like aqua jogging, biking and the elliptical aren't just for injured runners.

Say the words cross-training and most runners’ faces will instantly contort into an expression of disgust. When runners think of cross-training they think of injuries. In large part, the negative connotation comes from runners typically only turning to cross-training when they’re injured.

The thing is, though, runners need to shift their perspective and realize that cross-training will help them keep injuries at bay. Elites like Meb Keflezighi and Lauren Fleshman have been vocal about how their cross-trainer of choice, the ElliptiGo, enables them to remain healthy and “make up for” some of the land miles their competitors are doing. Runners should embrace cross-training and use it as a consistent training element to maximize their fitness off of less mileage.

Each cross-training alternative has its own unique benefits, but across the board all have dramatically less impact than running. Running is one of the hardest sports on the body; by limiting that amount of force you put less wear and tear on your body. Less risk for injuries prolongs your longevity in the sport.

Supplementing cross-training can be done in two ways: in place of what would be an easy run or an adaptation from a hard running workout. Granite Bay High School coach Carla Kehoe, who placed third in the 2014 USATF National Master’s Championship in the 1,500 meters, says “I use cross-training in a variety of ways, first to supplement my long runs which are not too long these days. To get the same effect of a 10-mile run, I will run 6-7 miles then ride a bike for 30-60 minutes at the same effort.

“Secondly, my days of running doubles are over. Instead I will do a morning cross-training effort of swimming or cycling for 45 minutes to an hour then my run in the evening.”

How to Incorporate Cross-Training

Cardiovascular Supplementation: Runners can use these sessions in place of a second run, or an entire run for the day, as a safe way to boost their endurance sans extra impact. Olympian and University of Connecticut coach Amy Yoder Begley shares her rule of thumb: “For easy days, do the same ‘mileage’. I count 10 minutes on the bike, elliptical, and aqua-jogging as a mile.”

Cross-Training Workouts: In the similar fashion of runners adapting their running workouts to cross-training during injury, supplementing a hard effort when you’re not injured offers all of the same benefits. In fact, advanced runners can add an extra hard workout into their training week if done on the cross-trainer. The times to do these would be in the afternoon after your hard running workout or the day after a hard workout if you have at least one more easy day to fully recover before your next hard session.

Cross-training workouts don’t stress the body as much as what would feel like the same effort running outside. This allows you to “sneak” in more quality work.

Types of Cross-Training

The best options for a runner are: aqua-jogging, the elliptical machine and biking. The ideal would be an anti-gravity treadmill but access to those are quite limited for us mere mortals of the running world.

Aqua-jogging: Take your running to the pool and mimic exactly what you would be doing sans any impact. It’s suggested you wear a proper aqua-jogging belt as that can help ensure you maintain proper form. There can be a tendency to lean too far forward, which is incorrect. Aim to keep your torso and hips all stacked upright and cycle your legs directly beneath.

Elliptical: Another motion similar to the running stride, the differences between machines can result in a feeling of a shortened stride. Ideally you’d like for the stride to feel natural; adjust the tension level and incline to tailor the workout to the proper effort level. The ElliptiGo takes you outdoors.

Biking: The bike is perfect for doing short intervals, blasting 30-60-second intervals will jack your heart rate up and really work on building leg strength. Increased strength and power means getting faster. It’s imperative, however, that you make sure the seat is properly adjusted to avoid other injuries.

Other: Certainly there are other machines like the rower and stair-climber, which can boost your fitness. But, in the order of applicable fitness gains for running, the above three would be your top pick. Ultimately, the bottom line comes back to effort; if you’re working and getting your heart rate up, you are benefiting.

Sample Workouts

Amy Yoder Begley: “Do workouts on the elliptical, bike or aqua-jogging that you were going to do. For example if you were going to do mile repeats, do the amount of time you would have done for the mile but shorten the rest to a minute between each.”

Coach Kehoe: “Here is an example of a training week for a runner who cannot do high mileage as he eventually gets knee or shin problems:

Monday: Long run on trails, 60 minutes and strides

Tuesday: Cross-training on the stationary bike. 15-minute warm-up followed by 10 x 2-minute pickups with RPMs over 100 at a medium level with 1-minute spin recovery followed by 15-minute cooldown. The same workout can be done on the elliptical or split between two machines for variety. I also like sets of 5-,4-,3-,2-,1-minute intervals with half of equal rest. Beginners can start with one set then work up to three sets with 3-minute active rest in between sets. The key is to get the heart rate up to 85-90 percent effort.

Wednesday: Quality day of either grass and/or hill intervals.

Thursday: Recovery cross-training, 45-60 minutes medium effort; RPM 80-90 on the stationary bike, or swimming.

Friday: 30-45-minute run with strides

Saturday: Quality day on trails with a tempo run.

Shift your perspective on cross-training as, by taking advantage of this powerful training tool, you can increase your running performance and reduce your risk for injury.


About the Author:

Caitlin Chock set the then National High School 5K record (15:52.88) in 2004 and previously ran for Nike. A freelance writer, artist, and designer she writes about all things running.