Making The Case For Runners To Cross-Train

Kara Goucher has molded herself into one of the best female distance runners in the U.S. Photo: www.photorun.net

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Dathan Ritzenhein is an even more stark example. In just a couple months under Alberto Salazar’s program, Ritzenhein 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 at the time. “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.

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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 1970s, ‘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 case studies like Goucher and Ritzenhein 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 PRs. 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.

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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?

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About The Author:

Matt Fitzgerald is the author of numerous books, including Racing Weight: How To Get Lean For Peak Performance (VeloPress, 2012). He is also a Training Intelligence Specialist for PEAR Sports. To learn more about Matt visit www.mattfitzgerald.org.

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