Runners: Choose Your Cross Training Wisely

Cross-training? Who needs cross training? If you want to run better, run faster...you've got to run more! This of course is the sentiment of many runners and coaches alike, but not everyone. Running used to be a sport reserved for a specific type of athlete, who could tolerate a high level of abuse, with one or two seasons of the year for competition. 

This does not describe the growing number of Americans that run 26.2 miles each year. Typical training protocols and 120-mile weeks are not always wise for newcomers to the sport. These seem like easy ways to scare newbies away from the sport, and a failure to acknowledge any other version of fitness they may bring with them.

I'm Allan Buccola, physical therapist and owner of Impetus PT in Greensboro, NC. There is not an overwhelming amount of support for cross-training in its ability to reduce injury rates in runners, but it has been show to enhance fitness levels. So if you're taking an off-season, getting a little burned out preparing for a race, or just can't run a sixth day this week, here are some alternatives to consider, and how they may help support your goals. 

Cycling

I love to incorporate the bike into my training when the runs start getting longer and more abusive: it really helps work out some of the soreness. Whether you're on a trainer at home, a recumbent at the gym, or on the road, runners can get a great deal of benefit from time on the bike. I am typically able to work out most of my soreness from the previous day's run by some honest time spent pedaling.

Hit the bike after a hard workout to reduce soreness.  

Hit the bike after a hard workout to reduce soreness.  

Runners struggling with significant cross-over gait, and looking for some relief, will appreciate the repetitive, reciprocal motor patterns without the crossover. The bike is also a great way to work in an additional 90+ minute workout at a moderate heart-rate, which is just the type of workout that helps to develop mitochondrial density and red blood cell production. 

Stair Climbing

I have been known to hit the stair climber at least once a week when preparing for some longer races with more intense vertical. I typically do not run fast enough paces to fully utilize my hip extensors at longer distances. Spending some time on the stepper helps me develop the aerobic capacity I need for climbing those long, steep hills.  

Don't expect there to be a big carryover to shorter explosive hill climbing. For that, I would go elsewhere. Another pro is that high-mileage distance runners tend to use a fairly narrow range of motion in the knees. This can be a great way to strengthen connective tissue and joints at slightly different angles, to contribute to greater overall wellness. 

Aerobics/Tabata/group exercise

I have never fully caught the bug for these workouts, but I'll be the first to acknowledge their benefit to runners, or maybe second after Thad Mclaurin. It's difficult to speak so broadly about this genre of exercise given the innate variety, but I've got a few thoughts. Firstly, you're more likely to get some core stability training that otherwise tends to be weak in runners. 

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Secondly, there is a strong chance that one of these courses will target your upper extremity. This is a GOOD thing for runners. The arms, shoulders, and trunk are critical for efficient and clean arm swing and gait. If you aren't convinced yet, I'll also throw in the frontal plane component.

What is the frontal plane? It's just a term biomechanists use to describe all of the body movements that go from side to side. These muscles are notoriously weak in road runners who tend to only move forward. Weakness in the frontal plane muscles can easily be blamed for a strong majority of running injuries.  

Jumping Rope

Jumping rope isn't just for boxers, but let's face it, boxers are doing this for a reason. It helps develop quickness on the feet, strong ankles, and cardiovascular fitness. Jumping rope could be considered high intensity intervals in every sense of the concept, but make no mistake, improving ankle strength will be a real benefit as well. Explosive ankle strength is critical for speed work and hills proficiency.  

In the research world, much of the data available is from studies on children. Regardless, there has been some clear crossover between jump rope workouts and improvement in shorter distance running. Of all the items in this blog post, jump rope may be the best served for someone on a time crunch, looking for the best short workout. 

CrossFit

As it has grown, CrossFit doesn't seem to have attracted as many typical runners, at least not in my experience. I think for those who are interested, there are some clear potential benefits. Similar to above, there are the HIIT components, that contribute to improved cardiovascular fitness. There are also added benefits that come with explosive plyometrics: better motor control and core strength.  

For those interested, CrossFit can help runners attain more well rounded fitness. 

For those interested, CrossFit can help runners attain more well rounded fitness. 

For slower distance runners, there is often an underdevelopment of elastic soft tissue, such as tendons and ligaments. The strengthening component in CrossFit, combined with explosive movement, is a great way to target these tissues and protect them from injury as race distances get longer. Especially for runners who thrive on 5ks or Rugged Maniac, CrossFit may have some things to offer.  

Club Sports

As we exit high school or college, we tend to move away from organized sports like basketball, soccer, rugby, and ultimate disc, among others, but opportunities to take part as an adult are out there. Think about the number of sprint intervals you did at the track two weeks ago: now think about how many down field sprints you do during a typical football game, basketball game, etc. 

A pick-up game of basketball can be surprisingly more challenging on your fitness than you may recall from years ago. 

A pick-up game of basketball can be surprisingly more challenging on your fitness than you may recall from years ago. 

Most of these sports also bring in some more obvious benefits, like more jumping, cutting, and agility training, but the biggest benefit of all is that you're improving fitness, while not even thinking about it...socializing and having a good time. Cross-training isn't just about improving fitness: it gives you an opportunity to develop as a more well-rounded athlete. 

Until next time...don't stop moving! 

-Allan