Cross-Train Like A Triathlete

Swimming laps while staring at the black line at the bottom of a pool can do wonders for runners. Photo:

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Cross-training with swimming and biking can not only help build complementary muscle groups and make a runner a more balanced athlete, it can also reduce the debilitating impacts to soft-tissue from the repetitive act of running. The bottom line is that, by mixing up your menu of workouts, you’re able to minimize the disadvantages of running and take advantage of the benefits of the other disciplines, says Murr, who first stumbled upon the idea based on his own cross-training experiments in the 1980s.

The result? What he discovered — and what led to the groundbreaking 2003 book “Run Less, Run Faster,” with Furman colleagues Bill Pierce and Ray Moss — was that, by reducing running volume and adding swimming, biking or other disciplines to a weekly training workload, traditional runners could increase their aerobic and anaerobic fitness, and maintain racing weight without constantly teetering on the edge of injury or slowing down.

Take Chicago-area runner Dave Walters as an example. He started dabbling in triathlon and duathlon training in the mid-1990s after being sidelined with an injury. He reduced his running mileage from about 70 miles per week to about 40, but also added in swimming and biking and saw his marathon times remain consistent — he ran a 2:34 at the age of 49 and 2:45 last fall at the age of 57 — and he believes the minimized pounding has saved his body over the years and enabled him to continue competing at a high level as he has gotten older.

“You don’t meet many 57-year-olds who have been competing for the last 43 years,” says Walters, who participated in triathlon for about 15 years before paring back his swimming to better match his schedule as an airline pilot. By relying mostly on running and cycling, he ran a 1:17 half-marathon in Florida in February.

Because cycling and swimming offer challenging cardiovascular diversions from the monotony of running, individuals who have been solely running are more likely to stick with it, which is especially helpful for those who like pushing their bodies but who invariably break down with high-mileage training plans. But it’s not foolproof.

Runners should understand that too much biking or riding with too much intensity can actually hurt their running. Not only can biking too hard make a runner too tired before a key run session, it can also lead to bigger quad and calf muscles. Swimming increases upper body mass through the development of bigger shoulder, arm and chest muscles.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” says Bobby McGee, a noted Boulder, Colo., running and triathlon coach who has worked with both age-group and Olympic-level runners and triathletes for 25 years. “The cross-training can be very beneficial because there are a whole lot of contrary muscles that need work.

RELATED: Staff Blog: Runners Vs. Triathletes

But, McGee says, when runners do take on cross-training, “they’d better be careful that they don’t become a cyclist or don’t become a swimmer.”

In order to cross-train with swimming and cycling, runners will have to get used to the idea of running less. That doesn’t mean you’ll be training less — in fact, cycling and swimming workouts can take more time, partially because each takes additional planning — or even feeling more fresh initially. By working additional muscle groups on a regular basis and expending more effort to get swim and cycling workouts in, a runner is likely to feel more physically and mentally fatigued than usual.

And that’s why runners should keep things simple, says Adam Zucco, a Chicago-area running and triathlon coach who helped guide champion runner-triathlete Lukas Verzbicas while he was in high school. Start by supplementing two or three runs per week with bike and swim workouts, Zucco says. Keep a long run, a mid-length tempo run and a fartlek effort or interval workout as three of your weekly staple runs, but eliminate easy runs that would normally be used primarily for recovery — for example the short, slow runs you might do the day after a long run or high-intensity workout.

If your goal is to run a good marathon or half-marathon later this summer or fall and not to actually compete in triathlons, then you should put most of the focus on your runs, Zucco says. Train your legs and your lungs with the appropriate stresses for the duration you’ll be running by keeping the quality of runs high, while focusing on good posture, smooth mechanics and quick cadence.

“Make your runs your key sessions, and those key sessions become the focus points,” Zucco says, adding that cross-training runners shouldn’t worry if they have a bad swim or bike session. “You need to be careful, because you still need bone density and musculoskeletal strength that come with running miles. It’s about finding the right balance.”

There are also mental advantages to cross-training like a triathlete, most notably that you can ditch the neurosis of having to run every day. Furthermore, using a mixture of swimming and biking as cross-training can be much more exciting than going to the gym and grinding away on the elliptical trainer for an hour.

Lastly, the different sensations of fatigue — especially the notion that you’ll always have tired legs during the bulk of your training build-up — can turn into a mental advantage late in a running race when your legs start to get heavy.

“You get to do swimming and bike practice and all that stuff, and that’s a lot of fun,” says Santa Fe, N.M., running and triathlon coach Ryan Bolton, who swam and biked throughout high school and part of college, while he was primarily a runner, but then switched to triathlon as his primary sport and eventually represented the U.S. at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.

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