October 22, 2015

Cross Training 101

Cross-training is another term that is thrown around very freely, but what is it, really? And once we agree on what it is, how should it fit into an overall training plan? The goal of this article is to put cross-training into its proper context, so that it can be of benefit to your running and not a detriment. This article mostly applies to runners who are training to race or to reach specific goals.

Young woman doing pushups - cross training 101

A Google search brings up probably the simplest definition of cross-training, “training in two or more sports in order to improve fitness and performance, especially in a main sport.” Taking that a step further, “In reference to running, cross-training is when a runner trains by doing another kind of fitness workout such as cycling, swimming, a fitness class or strength training, to supplement their running.” (Runner's World, 2015).

Now that we know what it is, let’s look at the “who,” “what,” “where,” “when,” “why,” and “how” of cross-training:

  1. Who…should cross-train? Anyone can, of course, but why would they? Cross-training can be done to supplement training (such as strength training), replace training (such as during injury or when there is no opportunity to run), or to take a mental or physical break from running, yet remain active. Also, cross-training can be done for social reasons, as in taking a class with friends or family. 
  1. What…is the best way to cross-train? Here is where things get a little more complicated. Most studies indicate that adding resistance training to a running workout will yield positive results. Treadmills offer an opportunity to run, but escape the weather outside. Elliptical trainers approximate running pretty well. Cycling and swimming provide a cardio workout, but mostly use different muscles. Also, there is mountain biking, Zumba classes, basketball, etc. The one big difference to consider when cross training is activities that are straight ahead, like running, are much less likely to cause injury than activities that require pivoting or cutting, like basketball or a dance class. 
  1. Where…is the best place to cross-train? Often, the “where” of cross-training is dictated by necessity. When traveling you may be staying in an area where you don’t feel safe running on the road, or may not be able to work out during daylight hours. A trip to the hotel pool or gym may be just the answer. Just remember to be cautious when trying something new. Also, national fitness center chains are a good option if you already have a membership.
  1. When…should you cross-train? First, cross-training should not be haphazardly inserted into your training program, as in, “I just don’t feel like running, today.” Most experts consider weight training to be the equivalent of a hard workout, not an easy one. Likewise, a swim or spin on a bicycle can sometimes substitute for an easy workout. The best time to cross-train is when you need to stay active during an injury which prevents you from running or during your “off-season” when you are doing mostly long, slow miles. Again, planning your cross-training is the key to the “when” question. 
  1. Why…should you cross-train? Why shouldn’t you cross-train? The benefits of cross-training are pretty obvious. It can build strength and flexibility in muscles that running doesn't utilize, it helps prevent injury by correcting muscular imbalances, and the variety helps prevent boredom and burnout. Also, if weight loss is a goal, strength training should be considered. One little talked about reason to cross-train is that athletes sometimes discover they are better at the new activity than running! But there are downsides. One study indicates that cross-training actually increases the likelihood of injury because of stressing muscles, ligaments, and tendons in ways you are not use to. Also, in the case of running, cycling or swimming usually does not give the same quality of workout. Then there is the old joke about elite Kenyan distance runners cross-train…they don’t.
  1. How…often should you cross-train? If you are a series runner, the answer is probably not very often. If you want to be good at running long distances, you need to run long. If you want to get faster, you need to run fast. But, by planning your cross-training sessions in advance, they can provide a welcome break from what can be a tedious activity. Remember that cross-training can make you sore, thus effecting future training. The most important thing to remember is specificity; the best way to get better at running is to run.

What should you take away from this article?

  • Cross-training can be good if used correctly and planned in advance.
  • Use caution when doing cross-training involving pivoting or lateral movement.
  • Resistance training is good, especially for older runners.
  • Specificity: the best way to get better at running is to run.

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Larry LaHodny has a B.S. in Physical Education, with Emphasis in Sports Medicine from Willamette University and an M.B.A. from National University. Larry has over 20 years’ experience coaching runners, including at the youth, high school, and adult level.