Incorporating cross-training into your weekly training schedule can indirectly improve your fitness and performance.
A few years back, I wrote an article for a running magazine in which I dismissed cross-training as a “kitchen-sink approach to training.” I noted that cross-training failed the specificity of training principle, which requires that training performed in practice be as close as possible to the exercise you’ll be required to perform in actual competition. In other words, swimming will make you a better swimmer, but it won’t improve your 5K time. I recommended cross-training only in times of injury. Not for the first time in my life, I was 100 percent wrong.
Cross-training refers to doing exercise that isn’t your primary sport. For runners, this can mean biking, swimming, rowing a boat or pushing a Sisyphean boulder up and down a hill, which is pretty much what hill reps already feel like for Masters runners who’ve skimped on strength training. Masters runners have long favored cross-training for three reasons: We can keep overall training volume high even as our bodies reject long miles and hard repetitions; it offers variety after decades of the same old same old; and it gives us a fitness outlet when injury strikes.
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But none of those reasons is the best reason for incorporating cross-training into your running regimen. The best reason is that cross training will make you a better runner.
First, the caveat: Many types of cross-training do fail the specificity of training principle. They don’t recruit the exact same muscle fibers (cells) and neural pathways as running. Therefore, they won’t directly improve running fitness.
Now, the reason to ignore the caveat: Cross-training can indirectly improve your fitness and performance in three game-changing ways:
1. It lowers blood lactate levels during intense running, thereby decreasing your fatigue level. It does this by increasing the number of MCT transport proteins in non-running, cross-trained muscle fibers—these proteins then import lactate from the blood. Basically, you turn non-running fibers into lactate drop zones.
2. It increases muscle glycogen stores in non-running muscle fibers, which can be converted to a carbohydrate fuel source and then exported to running muscles during training. You’re turning your body into a giant battery.
3. In cross-training activities that do comply with the specificity of training principle (e.g., pool running and the elliptical machine), you provide your body with an effective running performance boost without suffering the connective tissue and muscle fiber damage associated with normal, running impact forces.
While there are countless cross training options, the following six are a good place to start:
Cycling is a bad choice if you’re trying to mimic a running motion, but it’s a great choice if you want to train muscle fibers in the legs that rarely get touched by running—and if you want to travel faster and farther than mere running will allow. When biking, pay attention to cadence. Make 60 rpm (revolutions per minute) your floor, then gradually increase to 80 rpm as your fitness improves. Ride fast, slow, up, down, far, and short until you’ve gotten a good all-around workout.
It looks and feels like running. But it’s different in several significant ways.
— To counteract the lack of air resistance, most runners use a 1 percent incline, subtlety changing muscle fiber recruitment.
— Runners use a shorter stride, faster cadence and a more flat-footed landing on the treadmill; again, this changes recruitment patterns.
— Research shows that runners train up to 2 minutes per mile slower on the treadmill than on the roads; ditto on altered muscle fiber recruitment.
The result is an increase in MCT transport proteins in adjacent non-running fibers. Other than running a little slower, train as you would on the roads.
Resistance training (plyometrics work great, too!) isn’t like running at all. And yet it’s one of the most useful cross-training activities you can do. Studies have shown that it increases both short- and long-term endurance capacity, as well as improving lactate threshold. And a 2013 Italian study on masters runners showed improvements in running economy of 6 percent after only six weeks of strength training.
Pool running is probably the No. 1 cross-training activity for injured runners. That’s because it both mimics running and eliminates all impact forces associated with footstrike. Use an AquaJogger buoyancy belt (pictured) or similar flotation device, then utilize a forward lean of about 3 percent (roughly the same as running) as you move your arms and legs in a running motion. Your feet shouldn’t touch the bottom of the pool. Do your normal running workouts—just go by effort and duration, not pace and distance.
ElliptiGO Bicycle or Elliptical Machine
The elliptical machine was created to mimic the act of walking or running, and to do so with minimal impact force, thereby sparing your connective tissue and muscles. It requires you to adjust resistance and stride length settings in order to alter your effort level. The ElliptiGO bike is an elliptical machine on wheels. With the ElliptiGO, you can perform all your favorite workouts—tempo, repetitions, long hill repeats, etc.—on the same roads you’d use for running.
It’s December, and that means snow-covered roads, trails, and tracks. Don’t slip and slide your way to a pulled muscle or worse. Instead, engage in a little season-friendly snowshoeing (cross country skiing is a great option, too). Along with snowshoes, wear waterproof boots or running shoes covered by neoprene booties. Use your basic running form; just lift your knees a little higher to clear the snow. Train as if you’re at altitude (i.e., with a reduced initial effort and walk breaks when fatigue dictates).
About The Author:
Pete Magill is the fastest-ever American age 50+ at 5K (15:01) and 10K (31:11), the 2013 USA Masters Cross Country Runner of the Year, and the author of Build Your Running Body (The Experiment, 2014). Learn more about Pete at his website, PeteMagill.com.