CROSS TRAINING, Is it Real?

by Patti and Warren Finke, Team Oregon
In the last few years, there's been a lot of hype about so called "cross training". In their continuous pursuit of faster times, runners as well as athletes in other sports have been generally confused by the claims of cross training. More questions have arisen than have been answered.

Cross versus Multisport Training

It's time for a reality check. First of all, you need to separate cross training from multisport training.

The theory behind cross training is that you can apply the training adaptations from one activity to benefit another primary sport (i.e. running). Some proponents even claim that these adaptations are additive making you a better runner than you would be if you just trained by running. However, in our travels around the country talking to world class runners, we've never met one who did any real cross training.

Multisport training has the goal of making you as good as possible in events combining several sports. World class duathletes, triathletes, heptathletes, and decathletes are often very good in many or all of the events that comprise their sport, but not necessarily world class in any taken singly. Bo did not play football to improve his baseball, he did it to improve his yearly income. Many proponents of cross training are multisport athletes.

What Science Tells Us

One of the main principles of training in exercise physiology is specificity. That means that you will get few cross benefits from activities that are not specific to running. In other words if you do not use your body in the same ways as it will be used in a footrace, the activities will not make you faster than the same energy applied to doing more running. Often you hear people talk about improved cardiovascular fitness from cross training. First, you need to remember that cardiovascular fitness is only one aspect of running performance. Secondly, it is highly developed in any runner past the novice level. In fact, runners test higher in cardiovascular fitness than almost any other athletes, particularly higher than those athletes competing in non load bearing sports. If the "cross" training activities are truly non-specific, they will probably make you slower. The exercise physiology principle of overload tells us that the more of an activity you can do the better you will become, baring, of course, illness, injury or overtraining symptoms. Clearly what science tells us is that to be a faster runner, you should spend as much time as you can running. World class runners are living proof that this is a correct premise. They do not train by cycling or swimming, but run high mileage.

What Experience Tells Us (Risk vs Gain)

Our experience as coaches tells us that the most gain in training is by doing as much specific training as possible. BUT this is a high risk option. Annually, 60 to 70% of all runners are injured badly enough so that they cannot train part of the year. We all have friends who are no longer in the sport because they are "burned out". Is the risk of injury or burnout worth it? Maybe, if you make your living road racing. For the rest of us mortals, perhaps there are some other options.

What's In A Name?

First, let's junk the word "cross" and talk instead of "supplemental" training. And while we're at it we can relegate those "cross" training shoes to something they are really good for - weight training and beer drinking. How about considering some things that will not necessarily make you a faster runner, but will improve your overall fitness, health and enjoyment, reduce your running injuries and help you to be a lifelong runner.

Supplemental Training

Most runners think that they are highly fit. In fact, the elements of fitness are cardiovascular endurance, muscular endurance, muscular strength and flexibility. Runners excel in the first two, often to the detriment of the last two. This fact, coupled with the very specific muscle development of the lower body contribute to many running related injuries. Psychologically, many runners are highly focused and dependent on running. When they become injured, they have druglike withdrawal symptoms and lose a sense of purpose.

One way to deal with all these problems is to broaden your training into different areas that will improve your fitness and reduce injuries and that will provide you with additional activities and interests so if you do get injured, you can channel your excess energy into something besides eating. Here are a few:

Stretching

Although flexibility and range of motion are important aspects in running efficiency and muscle injury prevention, there are still lots of runners who don't stretch, don't stretch enough or stretch improperly. Stretching is not a warm up exercise. You should warm up before you stretch. Do your stretching after you've run when your muscles are warm or, better yet, at a different time of the day when your are warmed up and relaxed and can spend 15-20 mintues doing it correctly. Stretching is not competitive. Everyone has a different level of flexibility and the goal is to maintain or extend yours slightly. You should never force a stretch to discomfort, the goal is to relax the muscles and connective tissue to attain their greatest length. A new technique called PNF (proprioiceptive neuromuscular facilitation) uses a muscle contraction to help the muscle relax before stretching. The best book we've seen on PNF is The Book About Stretching by Solveborn.

Circuit Weight Training

Weight training is a good way to strengthen muscle groups which you don't necessarily utilize for running and to balance opposing muscle groups. Upper body, trunk and some selected leg exercises should be done. Emphasis should be placed on developing endurance rather than weight training for strength. Endurance weight training gains strength in the muscle, but strength training tends to lose endurance because of the energy systems involved. To weight train for endurance use light weight and lots of repetitions. The goal is to not fatigue the muscle, but to use aerobic metabolism. Pick a set of exercises and perform them in a circuit one after the other. Do repetitions at a rate where you can breathe normally throughout the set; move from one exercise to the next until you complete the circuit. Start with 2 - 3 circuits of 10 reps. Work up by adding reps up to 20 -30, then circuits up to 5 - 7, only adding weight when you can complete all circuits easily. You should not be spending more than 30 - 40 minutes 3 times a week. You do not need to do more than one set of exercises for each body part, but may change the exercise in separate circuits. For example the first circuit, tricep pulldowns, the second kickouts and the third, overhead raises. Be certain that each exercise is balanced so that both sets of the opposing muscle groups are worked. If you do leg extensions, you should also do leg flexions or curls with the same weight. If you do curls for your abdominals, you should do some form of back extensions. The trainers at the gym are excellent for showing form, but many may not understand the concept of endurance training. A good set of exercises is illustrated in Marathoning Start to Finish by Patti & Warren Finke. Back extensions should be added to balance the abdominals.

Water Running

This is a form of training done by world class athletes, typically when they are injured. Surprise, this is not cross training , but is really a form of non load bearing running. It can be used to maintain fitness when impact is not healthy. The running is done in the deep end of the pool using a buoyancy vest. Many pools have vests which can be rented or a vest can be purchased at the local running stores.

Cycling

Cycling is an excellent activity for development of the quadriceps and lateral upper leg muscles. These muscles are often weak in runners and responsible for knee and imbalance muscle injuries in the groin area. Cycling is a great activity on its own allowing you to participate in competitive and touring cycling events as well as duathlons. Make certain that your bike is properly adjusted for your individual height and arm length by a reputable bike shop. Often bike shops or local cycling clubs sponsor group rides for different abilities. Check in your area.

Conclusion

Supplemental activities should be part of every runners training. They should not be looked at from the standpoint of "cross" benefits, but from the standpoint of improving overall fitness, reducing running injuries, eliminating burnout and broadening sports participation.

We've only discussed a few of the possibilities here. Every runner should be stretching and doing some circuit weight training or other activities to improve flexibility, muscle strength and balance.


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