Written By: Josh Meyers, PT, DPT, OSC
As the last bits of snow and ice disappear, runners are lacing up their shoes and hitting the streets. A few have established a training regimen, but most are just happy to go for a run without having to battle frigid temperatures or icy conditions. The running season is upon us.
Well-intentioned runners are starting to accumulate mileage, but simply logging the miles without concern for training can lead to injury. Running, like any other sport, requires a continuous effort to keep one’s body performing well, and there is no better way to stay strong and healthy than with cross training.
Cross training for runners can take many forms, but essentially any activity counts as long as it utilizes muscles in ways that running does not. It can take the form of another sport like cycling or swimming, or it can take the form of exercise like weight training or plyometrics. Even walking counts as cross training. As long as an activity looks different than simply going for a run, it is considered cross training. However, the closer that activity resembles the sport of running (speed of movement, weight bearing positions, aerobic challenge), the more beneficial to running performance it will be.
Running injuries are most commonly caused by biomechanical faults, muscle imbalance, or inadequate recovery between runs. Runners that have a strong body withstand stress and strain as distances grow longer, and they recover more quickly after hard runs. These runners typically display better running mechanics as well.
Running itself, however, does not specifically strengthen weak muscles or improve running mechanics. If that were the case, running more would fix most running-related injuries, and that simply does not happen. A runner’s brain is wired to perform movement efficiently and defaults to using muscles that are already strong. The brain also chooses the path of least resistance when it comes to running mechanics and accepts, rather than corrects, deficits with form. In order for runners to gain the resiliency and mechanics that a strong body provides, they need to cross-train to address specific muscle weakness that running itself does not.
Statistics also show that about 80 percent of all runners will have an injury at some time, and the majority of those injuries are reoccurring. Not only does this statistic show that few runners are exempt from injury, it shows that most do not rehabilitate successfully. Since cross training corrects deficits with strength, flexibility, or form issues, successful rehabilitation is much more likely than with rest alone. Cross training also allows a runner to minimize the loss of performance with down time by continuing to utilize uninjured structures. If an injury sidelines a runner, cross training helps maintain circulation, flexibility, and cardiovascular fitness while an injury heals. If a runner has already incorporated cross training into a training routine, it is much easier to shift focus to that activity as well.
The type of cross training a runner performs depends on the type of injury. If a stress fracture is involved, non-weight-bearing activities like swimming and cycling are beneficial. If a muscle strain or pain from tendinitis limits running, stretching and strengthening with weight training is helpful. Overuse injuries simply respond better to a change of activity, anything other than running. Regardless of injury, cross training affords runners the opportunity to stay active and productive while helping their body recover from injury.
Runners who are new to the sport can benefit even more from cross training. Since a runner’s body can take up to six months to adjust to the impact of running, cross training affords the opportunity to strengthen muscles, build tendon resiliency, and increase bone tolerance to weight bearing during early phases of training. It also helps newer runners progress aerobic conditioning without the high cost of impact to the body. Cross training also allows runners to continue to improve muscle strength and aerobic capacity without the high impact on joints and other tissues as well.
MAKE IT HAPPEN
So, if cross training is that beneficial for runners, why don’t more runners incorporate it into their training? The primary reason is that runners don’t make it a priority. Cross training is one of the first things to go when schedules get busy or training runs become longer. Cross training days turn into rest days when runners are fatigued. Some runners would rather just run because it feels more productive. Runners who are intentional about cross training are more consistent with their training, stay focused on goals, and have less chance of boredom or burning out.
The goal of cross training is to supplement running, not replace it. For runners that run three to five days per week, an additional two to three days of cross training works best. This regimen still allows for one complete rest day per week and maintains balance with the rest of a runner’s activity. Runners don’t have to spend countless hours cross training, either. If a runner has 45 minutes at the gym, she can spend 20 to 30 minutes of cross training on a cycle or elliptical machine and an additional 15 to 20 minutes of strength training and stretching.
CROSS TRAINING TIPS
CYCLING | Cycling allows a runner to improve aerobic capacity by elevating the heart rate to running levels without the impact of more intense running. It has been shown that heavier bicycle intervals also work leg muscles harder than uphill running. While this alternative does not replace running, cycling allows a runner the capacity for intense cardiovascular or leg work on off days.
SWIMMING | Swimming is one of the best options that runners have when it comes to a non-weight-bearing cardiovascular workout as well. Swimming does not utilize muscles in the way running does, but is does offer a great option for injured runners to maintain cardiovascular endurance. It is also an effective alternative for runners who don’t want to spend the time strengthening their upper body with weights.
WALKING | Walking is one of the most underrated exercises that can help runners cross train. On non-running days, walking helps with muscle recovery by improving circulation and loosening up tight muscles and joints. When runners incorporate walking intervals into their training, endurance improves and the time it takes to fatigue is prolonged. Beginning runners can benefit by utilizing a run/walk combination during their training as well.
WEIGHT TRAINING | While weight training can improve strength of the entire body, runners benefit more when they focus on improving leg muscle strength. Exercises should be light enough to allow a runner to continue moving during the exercise and elevate the heart rate to near-running levels. Moving at speeds that simulate running is beneficial too. Runners can utilize weight training machines or hold light weights while performing squats and lunges. The goal of weight training is to improve running strength and mechanics, so exercise that more closely resembles components of running will help the most.
AGILITY TRAINING | Cross training with agility, plyometric, or other proprioceptive training provides a solution to ensure that muscle performance is at its best. Lateral, backward, and twisting movements all stimulate muscles in ways that running does not. Jumping helps to improve power, and agility drills allow runners to incorporate activity that resembles the speed of running. Balance exercise on one or two legs also helps muscle coordination and body awareness.
STRETCHING | The purpose of stretching is to allow muscles and joints to go through a greater range of motion during the running gait cycle. Runners that target flexibility or mobility of the muscles or joints that affect their running mechanics see the most benefit. Traditional static stretching is appropriate for a cool-down, but dynamic stretching (stretching that includes momentum and muscle effort) tends to be more effective for a warm-up or as a complement to exercise. Whether the goal is performance or recovery, runners should work to improve range without pain.