It’s on our training schedules every week. That dratted training day that most of us secretly ignore. While we’d never dream of missing a long run or a speed workout (or any other running day, for that matter), the spot on our schedules marked “Cross-Training” often gets skipped.
In our runner heart of hearts, we know cross-training is good for us. Just like rest days. And, multi-taskers that we are, we seem to combine the two. We rest on our cross-training days and then feel perfectly justified in going out for a quick run on rest days because, hey!, we’ve already rested for this week.
What is it about cross-training that predisposes runners to ignore it? The benefits of cross training can’t be denied. Cross-training strengthens muscles that running doesn’t, improving our form and leaving us less susceptible to running injuries. Cross-training also shakes up our running routine, making us less prone to workout boredom and burnout.
Maybe the problem with cross-training is that so much of it takes place in a gym and that, in and of itself, is boring for runners. We spend our time outdoors, traversing great distances, and taking in a variety of sights. Who wants to trade that for indoor machines that you leave you staring at a wall…or other exercise machines?
Or, maybe the problem with cross-training is that it requires an additional financial outlay, and we prefer to spend our dollars on a new pair of running shoes or marathon entry. Who has the funds for bicycles and swimwear and free weights?
Or, maybe we’re just tired of seeing the same cross-training routines recommended over and over and over again. We know that cycling and swimming and walking and strength training and stretching are good for us, but at this point in our running careers, these sports are leaving us a little underwhelmed.
But, fear not. There are options out there that can have you capitalizing on the benefits of cross-training without swimming laps or attending a spin class. And, maybe, just maybe, one of these suggestions will have you looking forward that cross-training day rather than avoiding it.
Sick of riding a stationary bike to nowhere? Try….
Runners have long been drawn to cycling because it works muscle groups, primarily the quadriceps, outer hips, and gluteus medius muscles, that are responsible for stabilizing the knee, leading to better running mechanics and less chance of being sidelined with illotibial band syndrome (IBS) or runner’s knee.
Unfortunately, cycling is not the cheapest of sports. By the time you invest in a bike, helmet, bike shoes, clipless pedals, a bike jersey, and bike shorts, you could have flown to Hawaii, run the Maui Marathon, and spent a week on the beach afterwards drinking mai tais and snorkeling. At the very least, after your cycling outlay, your non-running spouse is going to be watching those race fees a lot more closely, and that’s not good for anyone.
The cheaper alternative is investing in a stationary bike or just using one at your gym, but I get a little bored with the scenery in my garage or the bank of exercise machines at my fitness center. And, boredom means I’m less likely to stay on my stationary bike for very long, if I get on it at all, undoing any good that cycling could have done me when I substitute my lost cross-training time for an extra run, further destabilizing my knee, causing my IBS to act up a week before my marathon, then dropping out of the race at mile twelve, leaving said non-running spouse shaking their head over the wasted entry. It’s a vicious cycle.
But, compared to cycling roller blading is fairly cost effective, and it works the same hip and quad muscles as cycling, all while providing a moving tour of your local parks and neighborhoods. Much more scenery friendly. In addition, roller blading also works your abdominals and obliques, core muscles that help you maintain a stable stride, upright posture, and overall good running form. Plus, when you hit the beach in Maui, you’ll be able to sport a spectacular six-pack.
Do you loath free weights or are you overwhelmed by resistance machines? Try…
Let’s face it. Running is a fantastic sport, the bomb diggity of workouts, as far as I’m concerned, but running doesn’t do much for your arms. However, strong arms, especially strong shoulders, are crucial to distance runners. Strong shoulders keep you from slumping forward when fatigue sets in during long runs, helping you to hold your form, maximize your breathing, and maintain your pace.
Often, though, the idea of spending my workout time among a group of heavily muscled individuals watching me as I try to figure out how to add weight to a dumbbell (or, much more likely, take the extra weight off) leaves me scurrying back to the security of my running shoes. I’d rather finish my Sunday long run ten minutes later, slumped over and gasping for breath instead of risking the Mr. & Ms. Universes of the world pointing at me laughing while I struggle to do more than five reps with only the merest of weights (not that they ever would outwardly gawk and laugh though I wouldn’t entirely blame them if they did).
Instead of the ego crushing visit to the gym, kayaking can give you the same upper body workout as several sets of bench presses, all in the quiet (and semi-private) arena of a picturesque river or lake. Kayaking will give you those enviable strong shoulders and arms that will help you finish your long run upright and feeling tough (or, at least as upright and tough as you can feel after twenty miles). The rowing motion and balance of kayaking will also work your back, chest, and abdomen, fellow co-conspirators in helping you maintain proper running form, breathing, and posture.
Like the idea of getting out of the weight room for strength workouts but not a fan of water sports? Try…
Hitting the Batting Cages
Maybe you don’t have easy access to a kayak (though several places do rent kayaks for a reasonable fee and a good, used kayak can be found for a decent price). Or, maybe you don’t live near a river, lake, or other large body of water. Or, maybe water sports just aren’t your thing. Are you resigned to spending your weight training time in the gym?
Of course not! Grab a role of quarters and head for your local batting cages. Holding a bat, swinging a bat, and connecting with the ball works your shoulders, forearms, back, core, and legs. Be careful with this one though! Batting from the same side works only half your body, so be sure to switch hit. Sure, it may feel a little funny batting from the opposite side of the plate, but if you can master this skill, maybe the Majors will come calling.
For an even better workout, get several of your running buddies together for a full on baseball game in the park. You’ll add throwing, fielding, and sprints between bases into the mix. A sneaky way to get in a little speed work? I think so.
Never mastered the art of breathing for a proper freestyle stroke and missing out on the benefits of swimming? Try…
When it comes to cross-training, swimming reigns supreme. Swimming is a total body workout with zero impact. Swimming works your core, your arms, your back, your shoulders, your chest, and your legs. It improves flexibility and doesn’t stress your joints with repetitive pounding, allowing you to recover from your other workouts.
The problem with swimming is that so many of us don’t really know how to swim. Sure, we can mosey up and down the lanes, grabbing the sides of the pool and gasping for breath after twenty-five or fifty yards. While the Master’s swimmers breeze up and down the water like fish, head focused down and body perfectly horizontal, most of us runners look like turtles. Our heads bob up, our legs dip down, and while swimming is still a helluva of a good workout, it’s not much fun.
But, there’s another workout that will give you all the benefits of swimming without the risk of drowning. Instead of heading for the lap lanes, find your local indoor rock wall and start climbing. Or, if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, contact your local rock climbing club and see when their next rookie outdoor climb is happening.
Rock climbing will heavily work the muscles in your shoulders and back as well as your forearms and chest helping you to sculpt that strong running torso you’re aiming for. As a great deal of balance is involved in rock climbing you’ll also work your abdominals and obliques, and your legs and glutes will also get in the game as you leverage your body up the rock wall. Another bonus? As you’re reaching from one hold to the next, you can expect to get a great whole-body stretch. It’s just like swimming on dry land.
Speaking of stretching, does your lack of flexibility keep you away from that yoga class you’ve been meaning to join? Try…
Every time I go for a post-race massage, I get chastised by the therapist for not stretching. How they know this, I’m not sure, but they’re right. My stretching routine leaves much to be desired.
In part, I blame the confusion that surrounds stretching as the rubrics of stretching seem to change constantly. During my high school cross country years, we were told to stretch before we run. Then, stretching cold muscles became passé, and one was supposed to walk, then stretch, then run. But, then walking didn’t warm muscles enough, so you’re supposed to run, then stop and stretch, then run some more, but who wants to interrupt their run? It wreaks havoc with my Garmin and my frail runner psyche that says a true run is completed sans stopping. I even attended one running seminar where a doctor claimed stretching before a run didn’t really do anything for you. Guess which advice the half-hearted stretcher ultimately decided to follow?
But, regardless of where you fall on the stretching spectrum, flexibility is über important in running. Runners with good flexibility are far less prone to injury and tend to recover quicker from workouts and races. But, stretching isn’t the only way to increase flexibility. Yoga has long been touted as the ultimate running companion when it comes to improving flexibility, but having glimpsed the pretzel-twisted patrons of most yoga classes, I’m not sure that my plank-like stiffened muscles would allow me to participate.
However, there’s another workout available that provides the same stress-busting, flexibility- increasing, run-healing benefits as yoga without the contorted postures: tai chi. Like yoga, tai chi focuses on breathing and uses a progressive series of movements to improve coordination, posture, balance, flexibility, and muscle tone. But, the tai chi postures are largely performed standing upright with the most basic of movements that even an inflexible beginner can easily follow; something akin to marital arts training.
At the very least, tai chi can help get you ready to tackle that yoga class. But, you may find yourself sticking with this practice and moving on to the more advanced tai chi levels.
Do you think that walking is a just a sad form of running? Try…
Hiking or Backpacking
Walking makes nearly every “Best Cross-Training” list for runners. It’s a low impact way to help your muscles recover while still sneaking a few miles on your weekly distance total. But, if one of the main points of cross-training is to change up your usual routine and help avert burnout, I’m not sure how walking the same parks and trails I normally run accomplishes that. I’m still doing the same workout albeit at a slower pace.
Hiking, on the other hand, has me seeking out new territory I wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to run. And, hiking uses more, and different, muscles from walking. Unlike walking and running where you use a continual, repetitive stride, hiking has you constantly altering your gait. You’re sidestepping roots, scurrying up rocks, and jumping over streams – which can potentially lead to injury opportunities but can also force your body to adapt to new surfaces and inclines. You’re flexing your hips, using more of your calf muscles, and working your glutes.
For an even better workout, strap on a pack and backpack your way to a primitive camp site. Spend the night under the stars and enjoy that s’more knowing you burned twice as many calories as you would have just walking in your neighborhood.
And, if you have time for a quick trail run before you hike out of the woods the next morning, so much the better.
Of course, this isn’t an all-inclusive list of cross-training options. What about cross country skiing? Or, water skiing? How about surfing? Or, even swing dancing? Do you have a unique method of cross-training? If so, let me know about it!