The benefits are scientifically proven. All the pros do it. But the average competitive runner won’t budge.
Written by: Matt Fitzgerald
I started running a few weeks before my 12th birthday. Sixteen years later I raced my first triathlon. My motivation for branching out to multisport at age 28 was a simple desire to experience a new challenge, and I got that, but I also got something I didn’t expect: triathlon training actually made me a better runner.
In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, in adding swimming and cycling to my training regimen I drastically increased my overall aerobic training volume (moving from seven workouts per week to 12). Still, my actual running mileage decreased (from seven runs per week to four), so if it’s not shocking then it’s at least interesting that I performed better in my running races on multisport training than I did on pure run training.
In 2003, inspired in part by this experience, I wrote a book called Runner’s World Guide to Cross-Training. It flopped. Of the nearly 20 books I’ve written, it is my second- or third-worst seller. Why? I think it’s because most runners would simply rather run than do any other form of exercise. They don’t care how much cross-training might benefit their running. They would rather do all of their training as running, enjoy it, and race not quite as well as they could than mix running with strength training and other stuff, enjoy it less, and race better. They might not actually be conscious of this calculation, but I’m pretty sure that’s what’s going on when a competitive runner is exposed to the benefits of cross-training, more or less buys into them, and still doesn’t cross-train.
In an effort to sell cross-training to runners in my book (I knew it would be a hard sell and that I therefore needed to use every trick at my disposal), I included numerous examples of noteworthy runners who had relied on cross-training to reach the pinnacle of the sport. They included Joan Benoit Samuelson, Frank Shorter, Alan, Webb, Paula Radcliffe, and Khalid Khannouchi. I could have said that God Almighty cross-trained and commanded all of His children to follow his example and I probably wouldn’t have made any more converts.
In the seven years since I wrote the book, cross-training has become increasingly entrenched in the elite ranks of American runners. In enclaves such as the Nike Oregon Project in Portland, the McMillan Elite Team in Flagstaff, N.M., and the Mammoth Track Club in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., cross-training is taken very seriously. I don’t think most runners realize how seriously. For example, the Portland runners spend roughly twice as much time doing forms of exercise other than running than they do running each week. In a typical week they spend more than 20 hours doing no fewer than eight different forms of cross-training: bodyweight strength training, weightlifting, plyometrics, static stretching, dynamic stretching, hurdle drills, technique drills, and nonimpact cardiovascular training (e.g. pool running).
What benefits do they get from all that? Nobody is claiming that it transforms them into superheroes, but the runners in the group are sold on the payoff they experience, and the results seem to speak for themselves. Kara Goucher accomplished nothing but injuries in her first three-plus years after graduating from the University of Colorado in 2001. Then she joined the Nike Oregon Project and suddenly became one of the best American runners ever. She says she attributes her World Championships bronze medal, her 1:06:57 half marathon and the rest to having become a far more well-rounded athlete through the cross-training.
Dathan Ritzenhein is an even more stark example. In just a couple of months under Alberto Salazar’s program Ritz transformed from a disappointed 2:10:00 marathoner into an elated 12:56 5K runner, and a couple of months after that, a World Half Marathon Championships bronze medalist. He says the difference in how his body feels now versus before he went all-in for cross-training is stunning. “My body at 27 actually feels better than it did at 25,” he wrote on his blog. “I used to get out of bed some days and I could barely hobble to the other room.”
Obviously, even the runner who totally embraces cross-training cannot devote 20-plus hours a week to it. But he doesn’t need to. The best evidence suggests that runners of all levels will be healthier and perform better if they budget a certain fraction of their total weekly training time—however much or little it may be—toward cross-training. Elite runners can afford to simply add cross-training on top of the volume of running they would do whether they cross-trained or not. Age-group runners who cross-train usually have to reduce their running volume to make room for cross-training so that their overall time commitment to training does not increase. Again, though, the best evidence suggests that runners who do so still come out ahead.
Over the last decade or so a wide gap has emerged between the training methods of elite runners and those of non-elite competitive runners. In the ‘70s, ‘80s, and into the ‘90s, the training of competitive runners at all levels looked the same. Everyone just ran, some more than others. Today the typical weekly training schedule of the elite runner looks nothing like that of the competitive age-group runner. The recent changes in the training methods of American elite runners is a significant factor in their resurgence on the stage of international competition. And the rest of us couldn’t seem to care less what that might mean for us.
With cases studies like Kara and Ritz in front of us, it’s amazing how little the new cross-training paradigm of training for distance running has trickled down from the elite ranks to the masses. I understand that many runners really would rather run than balance running with other forms of exercise, even knowing that doing the latter would make them race better. But I can’t help but believe that there are a lot of other runners like me out there—not especially gifted but seriously competitive and therefore willing to suffer through plyometrics sessions and such for the sake of PR’s. What is holding these other runners back from taking the plunge into cross-training? I think they are not fully persuaded that swapping out some of their running for strength, power, flexibility and mobility development will improve their performance? They can’t quite wrap their heads around the concept that, when faced with a choice of lacing up their running shoes or picking up a set of dumbbells, sometimes they are truly better off doing the latter.
I confess that, despite the failure of the first book, I’m thinking about taking another crack at preaching the gospel of cross-training to the running masses. I hold out hope that the many other runners out there who share my mindset can be reached! Perhaps seven years have “softened the market” a bit, making runners more receptive to the gospel of cross-training. Maybe the first book was held back not only by lack of interest in its content but also by a title that failed to convey benefits. I think The Athletic Runner has a nice ring to it. What do you think?
Can’t Run? You Can Still Train? For three great training alternatives for the injured runner that are also great conditioning supplements for the healthy runner, check out Mario Fraioli’s article on cross training workouts.