Many of us may have heard of the concept of “specificity of training” which essentially means in order to improve at something you have to practice it. This, applied to running, means that in order to improve at running you have to run more, and to further that idea – if you want to run faster, you have to practice running faster and to run further you have to practice running further…makes sense.
It is also a long held belief in many circles that another way to improve your running, and also avoid overuse injuries or training related injuries, is the concept of cross training. Cross training involves doing other types of workouts in order to improve your running ability.
An article from Runners World in 2004 (1) listed the 8 benefits of cross training for running as follows:
Injury prevention, Rehabilitation, Greater Running Fitness, Active Recovery, Enhanced Motivation, Rejuvenation, Enjoying Other Sports and Fit Pregnancy. That all sounds pretty great, right?
In theory, one can imagine how cross training would improve muscular strength and endurance, cardiovascular fitness, as well as potentially reducing the risk if injury. A study which looked at a 10 week strength training program to reduce injury occurrence in New York City Marathon runners found no difference in number of injuries between the strength training group and the control group (2). Hmmm, but I thought we said cross training CAN help prevent injuries. In this particular study, they only had participants strength train for 10 minutes/day and it was self-directed (compliance was not directly monitored).
Another study that looked at the effects of strength training on running performance in post-pubertal cross country runners found that ten weeks of strength training added to a training program was highly likely to improve maximal speed and enhance running economy to a small extent without any negative impacts on body composition or aerobic parameters (3). That all sounds positive! It is great to practice what is evidence based but sometimes the number of participants are small, or the way they chose to approach the research method was flawed in some way.
To sum it up from a physiotherapy perspective, personal experience, and anecdotal discussions with my runner clients and friends, cross training appears to be a great way to vary the loads on your body while you continue to build muscular strength and endurance, as well as working on your cardiovascular fitness. Personally, I view it as an important part of any training program.
Cross training can be as simple as alternating running with other cardiovascular exercises in your training schedule such as elliptical, cycling, swimming or HIIT (replace 1 or 2 runs/week with another option).
Cross training can also consist of resistance training (lifting weights or doing body weight resisted exercises – eg. Squats, side planks) for muscular strength and endurance. Incorporating a few weight training sessions/week can add to your overall fitness level. Once you have some strength training experience you can incorporate plyometrics (explosive exercise) to work on improving muscular power.
Working on core strength and flexibility to support running is another form of cross training. This is what you could choose to do on your “rest” days as active recovery.
Anytime you are introducing new exercises into your routine it is a good idea to consult with a professional to avoid overuse injuries, injuries related to improper technique or body mechanics and to make sure that your training schedule fits with your fitness level and your lifestyle. It is always important to ensure you are hydrated and getting enough sleep, as well as to monitor your body for soreness and fatigue. Ultimately, the body knows best and will let you know when you have found the right combination of training modalities to achieve your goals! Good luck!
Raechel John, Registered Physiotherapist, MPT, BKin
From a young age, Raechel has been fascinated and amazed by the human body. Her passion to help and empower people to achieve their personal health and wellness goals drew her towards a career in physiotherapy. After experiencing the transformation of pregnancy and motherhood with the birth of her two children, Raechel developed a special interest in helping women navigate the changes the body goes through during this period. Raechel’s goal is to provide you with care which will allow you to function as independently and successfully as possible in a way which is meaningful to you. Outside of work Raechel enjoys running, yoga and spending time outdoors with her husband and two young daughters.
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