If you ask 10 other runners to name a benefit of cross-training, at least 8 of them will mention injury prevention. But although injury prevention is by far the most widely recognised benefit of cross-training among runners, it’s hardly the only one. Runners can also use cross-training to rehabilitate injuries, improve fitness, promote recovery, enhance motivation, rejuvenate the mind and body during breaks from formal training, enjoy competing in other endurance sports, and even stay fit through pregnancy. Related to the benefit of injury prevention, cross-training can also prolong your running career.
The good news is that you don’t have to do eight different kinds of cross-training to get these eight distinct benefits (seven if you’re male). You can enjoy them all by supplementing your running with a little strength training, flexibility training, and endurance cross-training (for instance, bicycling or swimming). Each of these three forms of cross-training has its own relationship to the benefits I’ve just mentioned, but there’s plenty of overlap.
Benefit #1: Injury Prevention
Overuse injuries are the curse of the running life, a never-ending epidemic among pavement (and trail) pounders everywhere. Nevertheless, injuries aren’t inevitable. Most overuse injuries can be prevented or at least prevented from returning. (More than half of running injuries are actually reinjuries.) Most of them can be blamed on four factors:
- Inadequate recovery (when your body doesn’t fully recover from one run to the next)
- Biomechanical irregularities (such as overpronation and leg-length discrepancy)
- Muscular imbalances caused by running itself (tight hamstrings and weak quadriceps, for example)
- Improper or worn-out footwear
Cross-training can’t help you with your footwear choices, but it can address the other three factors. If you’re a beginning runner who hasn’t yet developed strength and flexibility imbalances, you can get big benefits from endurance cross-training. Your ankles, knees, and lower back aren’t used to the repetitive impact of running, so you can use walking, elliptical machines, and other low-impact conditioning tools to improve endurance without beating up your most vulnerable joints, muscles, and connective tissues. You can gradually mix in some running once you’ve established a base of fitness (and lost some weight, if that’s an issue).
Endurance cross-training can therefore help you ease into the sport, if you’re a new runner, by reducing the amount of impact your body absorbs. And if you’re a veteran runner, it helps you stay in the sport. It isn’t uncommon for longtime runners to lose so much knee cartilage through repetitive impact that they develop osteoarthritis and are forced to hang up their shoes. By mixing in some weight lifting and swimming today, you just might spare yourself the frustration of only being able to swim and lift weights in the future.
Benefit #2: Rehabilitation
When an overuse injury does develop, cross-training comes to the rescue in two ways: by helping runners maintain fitness despite being forced to run less or not at all and by correcting the cause of the injury.
Of course, your immediate goal with any injury is to resume normal training as soon as possible. But if you can’t resume normal training immediately, your best option is to adopt a modified training program that allows you to maintain running-specific fitness without exacerbating your injury or prolonging the recovery process. The best alternatives are water running, elliptical training, bicycling, and inline skating, because they closely simulate the action and demands of running. If you can approximate the volume and perhaps the intensity of your running workouts, you should be able to maintain your conditioning. If you’ve been laid up for a while and you sense that your running fitness is in rapid decline, these cross-training activities should at the very least begin to reverse that process.
Benefit #3: Greater Running Fitness
There are many worthy motivations to run, but the desire to run faster is the most fundamental. Even if you’re slower than most runners and you don’t get too caught up in your race times, you still pay attention to them, and establishing a new personal best still gives you satisfaction.
Cross-training is a very reliable means to become a faster runner. To make an absolute statement might be going too far, but I think it’s safe to say that almost every runner can run faster by cross-training appropriately than by running only. There are three main ways in which supplemental training outside the discipline of running can enhance one’s running ability. Specifically, it can:
- Enhance a runner’s efficiency.
- Increase a runner’s power.
- Increase the amount of time a runner is able to spend training without accumulating fatigue or getting injured.
Better efficiency, more strength and power, and greater training volume without additional breakdown–these are the ways in which cross-training directly boosts running fitness. But I should mention that all of the other reasons to cross-train discussed in this chapter have a beneficial, if indirect, impact on performance. I mentioned, for example, that cross-training can reduce injuries. This allows you to train more consistently, and that, of course, makes you better prepared to race. Using cross-training for active recovery (reason number 4, discussed below) can enhance your recovery between key workouts, so you perform better in your key workouts, get a more powerful training effect from them, and again achieve a higher level of fitness by race day. And so forth.
Benefit #4: Active Recovery
It is an irrefutable but too often overlooked fact that workouts help you achieve athletic conditioning only when followed by rest and recovery-promoting activities. (Obviously, nutrition and hydration play major roles in recovery, but I want to keep our discussion focused on exercise.)
Periods of outright rest are, of course, essential, but the runner who performs active-recovery workouts between most pairs of key workouts will become fitter than the runner who does not, provided he or she has gradually worked toward being able to handle the frequency of training involved. While the runner who does not perform active-recovery workouts gets more rest than the runner who does, it’s actually the latter who gets more recovery. Again, this is primarily because the two hours immediately following a workout are far more valuable to most adaptive processes (including our example of glycogen storage) than are the hours following those first two. It may be counterintuitive, but it’s true nevertheless that in the context of a rigorous training program, light workouts accelerate recovery beyond what happens during outright rest by just slightly increasing the body’s need for recovery.
Your key workouts – that is, your high-intensity workouts and your extra-long workouts – are the most important to your running performance, so those should almost always be runs. When you’re injured, you should perform cross-training workouts that match your intended run workouts in duration, structure and intensity. But if you can run, you will be best served to make all of your key workouts runs and all of your endurance cross-training workouts active-recovery sessions.
Benefit #5: Enhanced Motivation
No matter how much passion you have for running, if you do it often enough or with excessive repetition of routes and routines, it will become boring. Most humans are stimulated by variety and turned off by monotony. Cross-training helps you maintain your enthusiasm for your sport, making it possible to train harder and more consistently and ultimately to perform better in races.
Anything you can do to increase your motivation for training is worth doing. In other words, a given training decision does not have to be justified by a purely physical rationale to be a good decision. If doing more cross-training and less running makes the training process more enjoyable, do it! Likewise, if you just don’t feel like running today, but you would be perfectly happy to ski cross-country instead, then ski! You’ll still end up in a better place than the runner who doesn’t cross-train and can choose only, on such days, between running with a bad attitude and doing nothing at all.
Benefit #6: Rejuvenation
No tree can bear fruit in all seasons, and no runner can train hard throughout the entire calendar. That’s just the way nature made us. If you want to run better next year than you did this year, you must give your body and mind a break from formal training after the final race. Coaches call this period of rest and play the transition phase of the training cycle, and every smart runner takes it as seriously (if one can take rest and play seriously) as he or she does any other phase of training.
A good off-season transition phase (which usually coincides with winter) should begin with about two weeks of complete rest. Fourteen exertion-free days are just enough to allow your body to achieve a deep recovery from the recently completed training cycle and to restore your hunger to run, but not so much that you seriously compromise your fitness.
After resting for two weeks, you should allow yourself between 2 and 8 more weeks of informal training in which you do whatever you want. Play netball or footy, do yoga, swim, lift weights – and run as little or as much (within reason) as you see fit. Your first priority should simply be to enjoy yourself. As long as you do some form of workout each day and get a cardiovascular, strength, and flexibility benefit from the activity or group of activities you pursue, there’s no wrong way to approach the transition phase.
Benefit #7: Enjoying Other Sports
Endurance is a highly transferable capacity. The strong heart and good lungs that serve you so well as a runner could serve you equally well in swimming, bicycling, skating, cross-country skiing, and other endurance sports. Yet endurance is also highly task-specific, because the only way to develop efficiency in a given activity is to perform that activity often. So while a trained runner would undoubtedly perform better on a bicycle than a couch potato would, that runner wouldn’t fare so well against a trained cyclist.
Genetic individuality is also a factor. Because various muscular, neurological, and metabolic characteristics of your body are the way they are, you may never be as good a cyclist as you are a runner no matter how much cycling you do. On the other hand, you could merely dabble in cycling and discover that you are even better suited to that sport than you are to running.
You never know until you try. And I’m here to suggest that you do try if you have the least bit of curiosity about what it might be like to compete in another endurance sport. You might really enjoy the experience and do well, and if you do it right, training for and competing in a second endurance sport could help you enjoy running more and even run better.
Benefit #8: Fit Pregnancy
In the not-too-distant past, exercising throughout pregnancy and soon after childbirth was considered dangerous, and motherhood was considered to be a career-ending decision for competitive female athletes. These notions were, of course, based on presumption rather than observation, and they have since gone the way of the notion that women lacked the strength and stamina to run a marathon.
Cross-training can help pregnant and postpartum runners in a couple of ways. Running becomes difficult for some women during the last several weeks of pregnancy, and high-intensity running becomes impossible for most women during this period. Staying aerobically fit is as simple as substituting non-impact endurance activities for running. You may wish to make this transition even in the absence of discomfort during running, just in case. There’s really no downside to doing so.
I hope I’ve made a convincing case for making the transition to a cross-training based program. It’s a tough sell to many runners, because it’s running that we love to do most. But your love of running can be the very thing that motivates you to begin cross-training once you realise how much this approach can benefit your running health, fitness and performance.