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Training Tips: The Importance of Cross Training

by Karl Gruber
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Now that you’ve set your sights on racing a full or half-marathon, your mindset is all about running – and running well, as it should be. I’ll be the first to tell you that when I am preparing for a race, I am all about getting in the necessary mileage. Without a slow, progressive build-up of more and more mileage to ready yourself for 26.2 or 13.1 miles, your body simply will not be trained and/or fit enough to handle it. You’ll find that finish line, but your body will be more beat up than it should be.

Here’s the problem with this mentality – it’s too one sided. All of your body’s physical effort is geared toward running only, and this is alright to a point. There is a reason why runners who put in a lot of weekly training mileage have a very thin physique, usually with not much muscular definition. While they are as healthy as a horse, they can lack balance. 

Many runners, including myself, have adhered to running lots of miles per week, getting in peak running shape to race well. But then we end up feeling far too trashed and beat up post-race (and even during training) because of no well-defined musculature or core strength. I’m not directing this at elite runners, as they are in a different stratosphere with very specific goals and training focus. I am directing this toward the bulk of us runners who want to not only perform as well as possible but also to recover and feel good after our races.

I have also been on the other side of training. I have gotten in the required training mileage while incorporating some cross-training to develop a stronger core and gain some musculature. When I did this, I looked to my triathlon friends. 

Triathletes are a great example of how to develop a training balance and build a strong core with cross-training. Add the elements of biking, swimming and strength workouts to your training, and you most definitely will create a body that can handle a high level of running mileage pretty well. 

If we look at Triathlon Iron Man World Champion Mirinda Carfrae’s 2014 running results, she crushed the 26.2 mile marathon distance in a course record 2:50:26 – and that is after she swam 2.4 miles and biked 112 miles! I can tell you with certainty that her cross-training regime of swimming, biking, running, and weight training created a phenomenal level of core strength and musculature balance that allowed her to perform so fantastically.

I’m not saying that you should immediately become a triathlete to become a better runner. I just want you to understand how a triathlete utilizes cross-training to become a better athlete and create a more rock-solid body. That should be your goa, too – to not only help you train and race well, but to reduce the likelihood of injury and recover better after hard physical effort.

According to Joe Puleo and Dr. Patrick Milroy, “Full-body training is an important element because it can diminish the injury potential that a repetitive, high-impact exercise such as running can have on the musculoskeletal system. By substituting a deep-water running session for a land running session, you can avoid countless tons of force on the body’s anatomy without concurrent loss in cardiovascular stimulation. Also, incorporating plyometrics into a training plan strengthens muscles, aiding the ability to withstand the impact of running training miles. It also helps in recovery from injury (when performed at the appropriate time), and it can improve running economy.”

Puleo and Milroy are succinct in explaining why and how cross-training can help you run better and stay healthier. They also list a number of core-strengthening exercises in their book Running Anatomy to help you accomplish this goal, including:
 
  • Back Extension Press-Up: Too much focus on the abdominals can happen during core training. This exercise strengthens your lower back and gluteus muscles.
  • Lumbar Hyperextension/Alternating Arm & Leg Raise: This strengthens and stretches the muscles of your lower back, glutes and abs to create appropriate pelvic tilt. A misaligned pelvis can result in poor running form and wasted energy.
  • Hip Abductor Machine: Abductor exercises help prevent and treat piriformis muscle pain and sciatica by stretching and strengthening your gluteus medius.
  • Floor Sit-Up: Without proper development of your abdominals, an imbalance between your abs and lower back can cause injuries and impede running performance despite having good cardiothoracic fitness.

It can be a challenge to find the time and life balance to incorporate cross-training into your daily life and training schedule, but the rewards of doing so are completely off the charts. I highly suggest you do it so you can go into your full or half-marathon with full confidence that you have done all that you can do in order to race well, stay injury-free and recover awesomely.

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