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Is Cross Training a Good Idea for Runners?

Cross training gained popularity in the early 1980’s primarily because of the sport of triathlon. Now athletes in most sports practice some form of cross training. While strength training, by some definitions, can be considered cross training, for the purpose of this article I will limit the discussion to aerobic training other than running. This article will discuss whether cross training is effective for runners, what cross training to incorporate into your training schedule and how to intergrate it.

Criticism of Cross Training

One of the most important principals of training is call the Specificity of Training Principal. This principal states that performance improvements are specific to the type, speed, duration, and range of motion of an activity. This explains why being a world class cyclist doesn’t make you a world class runner. I guess the simplest way of putting it is “you get what you train for”.

Cross training, by it’s very nature, breaks the principal of specificity. When cross training you are using very different muscles and methods of training than you would running. There are some coaches and scientists who will say non-specific training will not enhance sport specific performance and may even detract from it. In fact I have heard this argument taken to the point of suggesting that treadmill running is not a good form of training for runners because it does not simulate the running stride exactly.

While I am a big advocate of the idea that you get what you train for many people take this idea too far. Cross training can be an important part of a training program if you know what you will get from it and how to use it.

Benefits of Cross Training

There are many benefits that cross training affords which far out weigh the fact that it isn’t running specific

1. Breaks up the Monotony

Getting outside for a change of scenery or even training in another location can psychologically make the training session seem much easier. I’ve heard many runners complain that they have trouble doing a long continuous treadmill session even though they are capable of running outdoors for a longer period of time at a higher intensity. This is the boredom factor. When you are bored or not enjoying the session even the slightest discomfort can be magnified making the training session feel much worse than it really is. This will often lead to skipped sessions and a decrease in overall training volume, which isn’t good for your progress.

2. Prevention or Rehab of Injury

Repetitive movement patterns can cause muscles to shorten, flexibility to decrease, and strength imbalances to develop. This leads to improper movement technique and eventual injury. The repetitive nature of running, and inadequate strength and flexibility programs, are the chief causes of injury in runners. Increasing the volume of cross training can eliminate the repetitive stress of running, improve flexibility, and help reestablish muscle symmetry.

Injured athletes can use cross training as a means of maintaining fitness when they can’t do their primary sport. I have seen many elite runners who have improved their aerobic base dramatically as a result of a back injury. During the time when they can’t run they end up doing a high volume of biking or swimming. Often the total number of hours they spend cross training ends up being more than they would have done on the road. In addition, they are removed from the competitive environment and pay more attention to training at an appropriate intensity for base building.

3. Develops other Muscle Fibers

For every movement a particular set of muscle fibers and motor units are activated. When the movement is changed the muscle fibers used will also change i.e. the muscle fibers used for running are different than the ones used in cycling.

As I have discussed in previous articles slow twitch muscle fibers can use the lactate produced by other muscles as an energy source. When cross training at the appropriate intensity the slow twitch fibers that are not involved in the running stride become trained and more efficient at using lactate for energy. This means that you will be able to use up more of the lactate produced during racing and delay the onset of fatigue.

Incorporating Cross Training

Cross training can and should be incorporated into a training program all year round. The amount of cross training you do will depend on your total training volume and the time of year.

How Much Cross Training Should I do?

During the long cold winter months a recreational runner can have as much as 50% of their total training volume come from cross training. During the summer months that volume should be reduced to no more than 10%. If you are training six hours per week, during the winter you could do as much as three hours of cross training per week. During the summer months you would only want to do 35-40 minutes per week. These numbers obviously increase as your training volume increases. Some cross training should be done all year round otherwise you will lose the effects of the cross training done over the winter.

How Hard Should I Train?

Since you are trying to use the slow twitch fibers and improve their ability to use lactate, cross training should be low intensity. At lower intensity the improvement in slow twitch fibers will have a positive impact on your running performance. The best way to identify how low intensity the ‘low intensity’ should be is to use blood lactate testing to identify the correct heart rate range for you to recruit the slow twitch fibers. Cross training at higher intensity has very little or no impact on running performance and may even be detrimental.

What Should I Do?

The best type of cross training is the activity that you enjoy the most. Since many of the benefits of cross training come from the psychological break from a routine enjoyment should be the first consideration. Apart from enjoyment here are a few things to keep in mind.

Swimming is a great upper body cross training workout. Daily walking helps maintain lower body fitness. The addition of swimming once a week to a winter program will help prevent upper body detraining and add a new dimension to your running performance.

Cycling is one option that is easy on the joints and can also be used as transportation. Other than the cost of a bike and traffic problems, there is very little drawback to cycling as a form of cross training for runners.

Cross-country skiing is a popular alternative for those in snowy regions. It provides a nice mix of upper and lower body training while being joint friendly. Classical skiing is a better option for the running than skating. Skating can cause strength imbalances in the hips and shoulders, which may compromise running technique or lead to chronic injuries.

While the fitness improvements that you get from cross training are not the same as from running , keeping some low intensity cross training in your program all year long may give you that extra little edge everyone is looking for.