Making The Case For Runners To Cross-Train

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Seriously, everyone’s doing it. Join the crowd.

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.

RELATED: Why And How Runners Should 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 several 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 non-impact cardiovascular training (e.g. pool running).

RELATED: 5 Reasons Why Every Runner Should Cross-Train

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 in 2007, her 1:06:57 half marathon and the rest to having become a far more well-rounded athlete through the cross-training.

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