Cross-Train Like A Triathlete

Adding some cross-training to their workouts has numerous benefits for runners. Photo: Scott Draper/Competitor


Become a better runner by adding swimming and cycling to your workouts.

Have you ever considered that the road to your fastest marathon or half-marathon might require more than just running? If not, you should.

Generally speaking, the best way to improve as a runner is to train as a runner, but unless you were truly born to run, focusing solely on running is probably a very limited strategy. Elite marathoners typically log 100 to 140 miles per week for months on end, but few age-groupers have the rail-thin physique, dynamic strength and soft-tissue elasticity to handle the grind of even half that volume, and attempting it can quickly lead to injury and burnout.

For the rest of us, a dynamic cross-training program can help reduce injuries, accelerate minor injury rehabilitation, facilitate recovery and build aerobic fitness, power and efficiency. It also might be your path to reach new PRs — from the 5K to the marathon — and possibly greater longevity as a runner.

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Cross-training like a triathlete — mixing in appropriate sessions on a bike and in the pool with a reduced amount of running — can actually help many runners endure a higher workload than they can with running alone.

“The approach of doing other types of exercise other than a single-sport discipline really helps you become better balanced with your fitness,” says Scott Murr, an exercise scientist and one of the directors of the Furman Institute of Running and Scientific Training (FIRST) at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. “When you’re in your 20s, you can get away with solely running to some extent, but, especially as you get older, you’ll need to supplement with other activities.”

It doesn’t mean you have to all of a sudden become a geeked-out triathlete with a $5,000 bike and a garage full of gear. But runners beware: training like a triathlete is often a gateway to racing like a triathlete.

Train Better

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.

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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.

The Swim Factor

Let’s face it: few runners have technical skill and efficiency in the pool. Certainly swimming-averse runners could simply add biking and other activities to their regimen and gain positive results. But, coaches say, swimming offers unique benefits to runners, even if they’re not very smooth or efficient in the water.

“The swimming benefits of mobility, stability and flexibility are what we’re looking for, with additional cardiovascular benefits, as well,” says Marc Evans, a triathlon and running coach from Gardnerville, Nev., who coaches several elite masters runners using cross-training methods, including having them do three to four 12- to 25-minute swim workouts after runs every week.

Swimming requires athletes to stay in a streamlined position — a position that emphasizes deep core work. In other words, when runners learn to swim properly, “they’re learning to move from inside their body to their limbs,” Evans says. “What most people do, and this is true in running, too, is use their limbs first and not their core.”

Swimming also enhances range of motion, particularly in the ankles, helps improve posture, and enhances scapular stabilization, which also benefits running by helping increase cadence, range of motion and stride power — all keys to running more efficiently.

“Swimmers have amazingly flexible ankles because of the constant motion while kicking,” Murr said. “The more you swim, the more flexible your ankles become. If you can get a runner’s ankles to become more flexible, you get greater range of motion and are able to push off a little further.”

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Because of these benefits, many coaches suggest runners should get in the pool at least once a week for 20 to 30 minutes, even if an individual isn’t an efficient swimmer and lacks upper body strength. A runner might have to work up to swimming 18 or 36 lengths (roughly a quarter-mile and half mile, respectively, in a 25-yard pool) during a 30- to 45-minute swim session.

“Even if it means mixing things up by swimming two laps of freestyle, then switching to breaststroke for a few laps or even taking a break to walk a lap, that’s fine,” Murr says. “You’ll get some free motion in your legs, you’ll get some upper-body and cardio work and you’ll flush out your muscles as a recovery activity.”

However, once runners start to feel smooth and efficient in the water, they can start to really increase their aerobic and cardiovascular fitness by simulating running workouts in the pool. For example, Murr says, running 8 x 400 meters at 10K race pace on the track (75 to 90 seconds per repeat with 60 to 90 seconds of rest) can be transformed into 8 x 100 repeats with roughly the same duration and rest in the pool.

Similarly, running 5 x 1-mile repeats on the track can be translated into 5 x 400 efforts in the pool. And a 3- to 4-mile tempo run in 20 to 25 minutes can become the challenge of swimming a moderately hard, non-stop mile (roughly 70-72 lengths).

The Bike Factor

It’s long been understood that riding a bike — whether it’s a road bike or mountain bike — can help build a runner’s aerobic capacity without the negative effects of pounding the pavement, even though it takes three or four times as long to get in an equivalent workout. Cycling also offers the neuromuscular advantage of improving stride frequency — another key to running faster and more efficiently.

Because runners generally have strong legs, many find riding a bike to be rather easy and therefore are comfortable with grinding in a low gear that requires a high amount of muscular force. But that’s the exact opposite of what a runner should be doing. Murr suggests runners should primarily pedal in a high gear that allows lower power output and a cadence of at least 90 revolutions per minute (RPM) to match the neuromuscular quickness of their leg turnover while running.

The day after a long run is a great time for runners to go out for longer rides on rolling (but not excessively hilly) roads in which they’re keeping their cadence high and heart rate low. But he also promotes the idea of occasionally simulating a 20-minute tempo run effort on a bike by finding a good balance of moderate resistance and quick-cadence, high-RPM spinning.

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“I think that if you have running-related goals, you should make your training have the most chances of carrying over to your running,” Murr says. “Rather than riding with a lot of resistance and pedaling at 75 RPM, I think you’re much better reducing the resistance and getting your cadence up to 90 to 95 RPM so you can train your legs for that fast turnover.”

Keep in mind that hours of spinning on a bike — especially in aero position — can shorten the psoas muscles and hip flexors, resulting in tight hips and core, which won’t allow for the full extension needed for running. Many triathlete-runners do regular hip flexibility drills and exercises on a foam roller to ensure their hips stay loose. But the best way to avoid getting tight hips is to ride upright as much as possible and avoid being hunched over in the aero position.

“It doesn’t necessarily help — the amount of cycling I do. It definitely hinders my running ability,” says 2012 Ironman world champion Pete Jacobs, who’s known as one of the swiftest runners among triathletes. In fact, Jacobs says if he were ever to train for a marathon, he would pull back on the swimming and biking and put his focus more on running — a key differentiating point between triathletes and runners who use the elements of triathlon as cross-training.

Modified Brick Workouts

To prepare for multisport races, triathletes and duathletes typically do “brick” workouts, which combine two disciplines in succession to simulate the conditions they’ll encounter during a race. The most common types of bricks involve cycling-running workouts, which often entail running at race pace (or faster) immediately after finishing a ride.

Although those workouts primarily benefit someone who is training for a triathlon and wants to replicate what it feels like to run off the bike, bricks can also simulate the feeling of heavy legs late in a running race without the pounding and total depletion of a long run. For example, a marathon runner could ride at a moderate pace for 60 to 90 minutes and then run a 5-mile tempo run or a 10-mile progression run. This would simulate running at race pace with a high cadence and good form despite having tired legs from the ride.

Triathletes often go beyond the traditional bike-run brick by going on long runs followed by long bike rides, or by practicing interval workouts that switch off between running and biking several times. Zucco is fond of the run-bike brick, saying it is especially helpful for his 4-hour-plus marathoners.

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“I’ll have them do a 2.5-hour run, or, very rarely, a 3-hour run, and then get on the bike for an hour to an hour and a half,” he says. The length of the workout prepares the athletes for the length of the actual race without causing the undue damage inevitably wrought by a 4-hour run.

Murr has his cross-training marathon runners mix in a brick workout after a weekend of long singular workouts. For example, if a runner does a long run between 13 and 18 miles on a Saturday, then does a 2- to 3-hour recovery-oriented ride on Sunday, he’ll often prescribe a bike-run-bike workout for Monday so as to reduce the negative impacts of another run on tired legs. That workout might entail riding easy for 15 minutes with a high cadence, then getting off the bike to immediately run 2 to 3 miles at a comfortably hard tempo pace before finishing with another 15 minutes of easy spinning on the bike.

“You’re getting your leg turnover going fast before you run. Then you go run and match that turnover, then you get back to your cycling to finish up without the impact,” he says. “It’s great for runners because runners like to run, and it’s a 45- to 50-minute workout that stresses the individual cardiovascularly, where they’re getting a little of that running fix with some of the weight-bearing sensation from running, without totally beating up their legs.”

Runner Beware

Training like a triathlete can help most recreational and masters runners become more fit and injury resistant. But it would likely hinder the world’s most elite runners or young sub-elite age-groupers whose only goals are focused on running as fast as possible. Indeed, top coaches say running high mileage is still the fastest way to success — but only if you’re one of the select few who can handle it.

“Yes, we all know the special guy who can seemingly run more miles and never get hurt. But that’s the special guy,” Murr says. “Most of us can’t handle that kind of training, especially as we get older. So it comes down to how well we can manage our energy, physical health and still pursue the goal of being fit and fast. We’re all an experiment of one and finding a balance that works for each of us.”

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