Training for a marathon? You’ll want to spend some time cross training.
Elite marathon runners often log 100 to 120 miles during peak training weeks: perfect when your job is to run day-in and day-out. But if the rest of us ran those massive miles, we’d likely find ourselves on the disabled list before we even had the chance to toe the start line at our target marathon.
Cross training allows runners of all abilities to reach their peak performance levels and helps ward off those pesky injuries that can often accompany marathon training. “Cross training is absolutely necessary for runners to stay healthy and run successfully for many years,” Meg Sullivan, training program manager at the Chicago Area Runners Association, says.
Why cross training aids runners depends on the method used, as each cross training option, whether it be swimming, using the elliptical or lifting weights, has its own set of benefits. Low impact. Strengthens bones and joints. Fires the slow-twitch and fast-twitch muscle fibers. But the underlying factor is simple: cross training can make your running better.
“What athletes will ultimately get out of these types of training is less chance of injury, more leg—and body ‘core’—strength, power, and endurance to help the runner keep good form throughout the run, power and speed, as well as endurance to last through the whole race,” Erik Marthaler, co-owner of Lateral Fitness who is a personal trainer and triathlon and running coach, says.
Unfortunately, runners often wait to use this secret weapon in the marathon training arsenal until they’re injured. “I would encourage runners to plan cross training, such as biking, swimming and elliptical, into their schedule before they are hurting,” Sullivan says.
Sullivan’s suggestion: cross train on easier training days. “Just aim to get the major running workouts in during the week,” she says. “For example, the runner should make sure they can complete the weekend long run, one speed workout and one tempo run. The rest of the week should be easy running and one day of cross training.”
Sometimes that’s easier said than done. To help encourage runners to complete their cross training, marathon training plans like CARA’s emphasize the importance of non-running workouts.
“CARA coaches absolutely advise runners to cross train and we provide them with many opportunities and discounts to do so,” Sullivan says. “We are determined to keep our runners safe, healthy and strong and so have been creating partnerships with places such as CorePower Yoga, FlyWheel, Aerial Fitness and Shred 415 among others. We want to keep our runners motivated and excited about training. Everyone should switch things up a bit to keep training fun.”
What one person finds fun may not entice another runner, but with cross training, there are plenty of options, even during the height of marathon training.
An hour on the bike can be just as hard as an hour-long run, especially if you’re riding indoors at a Spinning class or on a CompuTrainer.
“These rides can actually be much more challenging than riding outside seeing as you can push yourself continuously with no interruptions,” Angela Park, a triathlon coach at Spark Multisport, says. Spin sessions increase fitness and anaerobic threshold, allowing you to run longer and faster.
Cycling workouts also afford the opportunity to train your aerobic base, work muscles that don’t see much action when you’re running and get an intense workout without being too hard on the body. “Biking helps runners keep an endurance base and even work on speed while preventing too much pounding,” Sullivan says.
Yoga is a prime example of low-impact movement that won’t compromise recovery from that long run you had over the weekend, with benefits that go beyond stretching sore muscles and warding off injury. Yoga also teaches breathing techniques and focuses the mind: two practices useful on race day when you need your head and body to work together.
“Yoga and strength training are two great ways to complement a marathoner’s training and offset any imbalances,” Sullivan says.
Classes like Chicago Endurance Sports’ Yoga for Runners cater to runners’ needs and help to improve performance in sports as a result of increased flexibility, strength and mental focus.
Recently, Equinox partnered with UCLA for a 12-week study that showed that Equinox’s three-cycle system—laying the foundation, balance and coordination and advanced training—worked. The study found increases in lean body mass, muscle strength, muscle power and VO2 Max, all key components to improving fitness.
“Taking the client through these stages through something as simple as a squat will give them a great foundation, will decrease injuries and will increase strength,” says Amanda Pezzullo, personal training manager at Equinox Gold Coast.
Increasing strength can also help you only improve your overall performance.
“[Strength] often gets overlooked [during training] but is vital to speed, endurance and injury prevention,” Park says.
The strength training you can get working with a trainer can break running’s movement monotony, promoting balance and decreasing your chance of injury.
“When you’re strength training, you can do rotational movement, you can do frontal plane movement, lateral movement and side-to-side movement,” Pezzullo says. “It’s going to make the body more well-rounded than just going in that forwards and backwards plane.”
Where you are in your training program affects what kind of strength training you want to do.
“At the beginning of the program it is best to add a lot more weight training,” Marthaler says. “Weight training helps strengthen the bones and joints, as well as burn calories and fat.”
While weights will help fire the slow-twitch muscles, Marthaler likes to employ plyometrics—moves like jump squats, box jumps and speed skaters—to hit the fast-twitch muscle fibers and build muscular strength, endurance and power.
“This is also a great way to work the heart as well as blood flow to the muscular system,” he says. “Building capillaries and working on blood flow to the muscles helps eliminate lactic acid buildup, helps from cramping from lack of oxygen to the muscles and even recover faster after a hard run.”
Here’s where a personal trainer becomes invaluable. “Hiring a trainer or coach who knows about running and program design is also a smart investment to make sure the athlete has a successful and efficient race,” Marthaler says.
Your trainer can keep you on your toes and hold you accountable, but finding a trainer who understands running can help you get the endurance, flexibility, increased stabilizer muscles and increased power you want to take your running to the next level.
“We know that the strength training is going to be secondary to their runs,” Pezzullo says. “We want to do something that’s going to supplement it and make their runs more positive and make their runs easier for them versus tougher.”