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Do runners need to cross-train?
As a gymnast, dancer, and bodybuilder now turned runner I can really appreciate the value of cross- training in my exercise routine. More importantly, as an orthopedic surgeon I often see runners who would’ve otherwise benefited from the protective effects of cross-training, but are now forced to cross-train to heal injuries.
Cross-training really just means changing your exercise types and routine to benefit the same goal. If your goal is to run faster or longer you don’t just have to run faster and longer. Just trying to run faster and longer will often lead to the consequences of the “terrible-toos”; Too much, too soon, and too often. Stress fractures, plantar fasciitis, tendinitis, and over-training syndrome all result from the terrible too’s. Beyond wearing shoes that you have been properly fitted for, or running on softer surfaces, cross-training will help you avoid the damaging effects of doing the same thing over and over.
Cross-training for running can come in many forms with different goals in mind. One goal is to improve or maintain endurance even when not running. Another goal is to limit wear and tear on joints, tendons, or muscles by improving joint stability, proprioception, and balance. Finally, running has a tendency to catabolize muscle mass and we must maintain muscle to stay strong at all costs.
The Importance of Cross Training for Runners
All types of endurance activities can help us to maintain the ability to exchange oxygen more efficiently. When bones and joints are beaten up from running sessions sometimes a non-impact session on the bike, elliptical, or in the pool can help aid in recovery while getting your heart rate up. In fact, cross-training with high intensity intervals on a bike can help to improve running performance. Try a 10 minute moderate intensity warm up. Then, perform 5 to 6 intervals of very high tension on the pedals for 30-60 seconds with 1 minute of rest at an easier tension in between. Cool down for 10 minutes and enjoy the performance enhancing effects of doing this 2 times per week.
Plyometrics, Yoga, Pilates, and many similar types of activities can help build agility, flexibility, power, core strength and balance. Trail runners and road runners often need to circumvent obstacles with the agility of a rabbit in the woods. The agility built by cross-training could help avoid injury. Further, the core strength developed will help limit back pain and the flexibility will help loosen tight structures like the glutes, hams, IT band, and calves.
Weight training is incredibly important to just about any sport. I believe it is just as important for runners and other endurance athletes as it is for the football player. Muscle is metabolic currency that supports our bones and joints. The constant pounding of running especially in energy restricted states breaks down muscle. The best way to maintain muscle and rebuild after long runs is to train with weights and eat extra protein like whey, soy, or casein.
Use cross-training to help you recover from long runs and limit the boredom of a rigid routine. Think of cross-training as an adjuvant to your performance goals. Don’t wait until you have to see me as a patient and I force you to cross-train.