As a runner, you probably devote most, if not all, of your training to running. Actually, that is not a bad idea. The principle of specificity as it applies to athletic training states that training should be relevant to and appropriate for your sport. However, there are many great reasons to add other types of training (cross-training) to your schedule of weekly activities.
Overall fitness: The five basic categories of fitness are aerobic capacity, muscular strength, muscular endurance, flexibility and body composition. The good news is that running addresses three of these aspects: aerobic capacity, muscular endurance (primarily lower body) and body composition. However, in order to be fit in a complete and balanced way, you need to cross-train. In your cross-training, try to focus on activities that address the missing items in the fitness categories list. Resistance/strength training (muscular strength), yoga or Pilates (flexibility) and rowing (upper-body muscular endurance) are good choices to balance your overall fitness program.
Injury prevention: Running is a very repetitive sport. As a result, it puts you at risk for overuse injuries of the hips, glutes, legs, knees, ankles and feet. The main causes of these injuries are muscle imbalances and overuse that come from having running as the only component of your training regimen. In order to combat injury, it is crucial to add strength training to your routine. Focus strength training on the core, hips (glutes), legs, ankles and feet. If you tend to get tight and are prone to muscle strains, regular flexibility work would be helpful. If you want to add more cardio training to your routine, look for exercises that work different muscle groups and/or are low impact such as swimming, rowing and cycling.
Preventing boredom: Even if you love running, if that is all you ever do, you may eventually get bored. At the very least, it might become stale enough that you have trouble training at the intensity required to reach your goals. Cross-training adds variety, helps keep workouts interesting and increases your chances of long-term running success. Try things you like, maybe the elliptical machine where you can read or watch TV, or a hiking program to help you enjoy the outdoors at a slower pace.
Weight loss/fitness: Running can be a great tool for weight control. However, your body will likely only tolerate so much running beyond which, you may start to experience injuries. Strength training (see above) will help you avoid injuries and may allow you to run a bit more, but it is likely you will reach a plateau with your weight-loss results. If you want to add more activity to keep your body challenged, cross-training is your best bet. Just be careful about falling into a trap where you think that more exercise equals more weight loss. Diet /food choices and portion control are the biggest keys to weight control and body composition success.
Recovery: The body gets stronger after exercise when the muscles are given time to rebuild. Mixing up your routine will give different muscle groups time to repair and rebuild to allow your body to become stronger and more resilient.
Now let’s dive in with a bit more detail into the various types of cross training:
Cardiovascular training: Including non-running cross-training in your schedule helps combat boredom, balance aerobic capacity and increase work capacity without overloading your body with too much running. Consider a variety of aerobic activities and try to mix it up a bit. Since rowing works the upper body, it is a great complement to running. Other low-impact options such as cycling, elliptical and hiking allow you to further build your aerobic base without additional pounding from more running. In-line skating is a great no-impact option that works the lateral hips due to the side-to-side component of skating. Just be careful and wear the proper protective gear.
Strength training: One of the best ways to make your body more resilient against injuries, as well as improve your running strength and performance, is to strength train. It is important to focus on the key areas in the right ways in order to maximize the benefits of your strength training for your running.
Feet and ankles: Your feet and ankles absorb a great deal of the force of running and in order to withstand that force and avoid injury, they must be strong and have adequate range of motion. Exercises that encourage foot and ankle health include calf raises/lowers, heel walks and toe raises. Other exercises may be useful depending on your injury history. For example, towel drags are useful for runners with a history of plantar fasciitis.
Quads, hips and glutes: These muscles are the powerhouse of running. The focus here should be on stability, symmetry (each side of your body close to equal strength) and general strength. Try to include single-leg exercises (such as lunges) to help create symmetry between the two sides of your body. Other exercises to include for quad, hip and glute strength are squats and glute bridges. Difficulty can be increased by adding weight or by increasing the stability challenge. For example, try single-leg glute bridges. Other exercises, such as clams and lateral straight leg raises, are useful for runners with a history of IT band injury.
Core (abdominals): The core is key to keeping your pelvis stable as you run. Here you should focus on stability and endurance. Exercises such as planks, side planks, leg lowers and isometric side holds (Pallof holds) are useful in training these muscle groups. Planks and side planks can be advanced by adding instability (such as a ball or BOSU), but be careful with these progressions as the risk of falling or injury is greater.
Focus on these areas and you will reap the benefits by becoming stronger and more resilient to injury.
If you are interested in a small group strength training class focusing on all the above body parts, join us at RunSMART.
Flexibility: Running tends to tighten certain muscles in your body, especially the calves, hips and hamstrings. Flexibility training helps counteract that tightness. Pilates and yoga are great muscle lengthening activities. Stretching of the lower body and lower back are great for maintaining mobility. It is best to limit stretching activities before you run; do your stretches, especially static stretches, after running.
As you can see, mixing up your training provides many benefits, making you stronger and more fit and enhancing your running success.
Laurie Lasseter Marathoner
ACE Certified Personal Trainer
RRCA Certified Running Coach
Edward-Elmhurst Health & Fitness