High volume doesn’t always have to mean high mileage.
There are no real secrets when it comes to improving your running. To get faster, you run. A lot.
Just look at the best runners in the world—they consistently run 100-plus mile weeks during their heaviest training blocks. Look at the resurgence of American distance running. What sparked it? American runners committed themselves to training like the Kenyans and running more miles.
The only problem is that most of us aren’t built like Dathan Ritzenhein and Ryan Hall, and we can’t handle the injury-inducing beating that comes from 100-mile weeks.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t adopt a similar level of volume into our training regimen—as long as we do it with cross-training. I’ve been a big believer in cross-training ever since I began running 15 years ago. While I’ve had my fair share of injuries and illnesses, I believe that if I had solely focused on running throughout my career, I would have never known what it was like to experience an injury-free season.
This is because when I started running, it only took two months before I had seriously injured my arch. Back then, I only ran and did nothing else. The injury forced me to reevaluate my training and, on the advice of a very smart coach, I decided to reduce my running miles and replace them with cycling, swimming and stairmaster workouts. Once I did this, I was able to make it through my entire high school career without another injury.
The reasoning behind my decision was this: real improvement requires years of consistent training. With cross-training, I was able to build up to the equivalent of 60-to 80-mile weeks by the end of high school without the injury-inducing pounding of actual 80-mile weeks. Because of this, I was able to improve more than I ever could have if I had only run. When I got to college, I tried to pile on the miles and do away with much of the cross-training. It wasn’t long before my shin splints got so bad that I couldn’t run any more.
While there aren’t a lot of studies that specifically address the effect cross-training has on running performance, there are a few promising ones out there. For example, in 1993, scientists at Cal State Northridge had one group of athletes train for five weeks by running only or by alternating running and cycling each day. The intensity levels of the two training regimens were equivalent. After five weeks, the scientists found that there was no significant difference between either group’s 5,000-meter and mile run times and VO2 max numbers.
Scientists at the University of New Mexico had similar results in a study they did on untrained females in 1996, seeing no significant difference in the aerobic benefits of running, cycling and combined running and cycling regimens. Additionally, a 1997 study at the University of Toledo found that competitive runners could maintain their running fitness for four weeks with only aqua jogging.
There is anecdotal evidence, as well. Oregon’s Jordan Hasay, quite possibly the best high school runner ever, has often been quoted in interviews saying that she supplements her running with swimming.
Of course, no one will ever tell you that aqua jogging and cycling can replace running. But, such activities can be great supplements to running for those of us who get injured with high mileage. What’s more, cross-training can be a great recovery tool. After a hard run, one of the best methods of recovery that I have found is to drink a protein shake, stretch a little, let the shake digest a bit, and then get on a bike and spin—very easily—for 20 to 40 minutes. This activity pumps nutrient-rich blood through my muscles and stimulates healing.
Who knows, perhaps with the aid of cross-training, you can run a marathon faster than you ever thought possible.
Courtney Baird is editor-in-chief of Inside Triathlon magazine. She ran Division 1 cross country and track and now competes in triathlons as an elite age-grouper. Follow her on Twitter: @courtneybaird99