Cross training

Rugby players running for fitness - photo by David Knight

Rugby players running for fitness

To a runner, cross training means doing exercise other than running, such as cycling, swimming or working out in the gym.  The best exercise to improve your running performance is running; but other exercises can play an important part in your training programme.

Why do cross training?

All exercise will increase or maintain your fitness and provide other physical benefits, but because the body’s adaptation to exercise is quite specific, running is the most efficient way to exercise to improve your running performance.

Swimming is an excellent low impact way to improve fitness - photo by David Knight

Swimming is an excellent low impact way to improve fitness

Nonetheless, cross training can play an important role in your training programmes.  The main advantages of doing other forms of exercise are that they increase your overall levels of fitness without adding to the repetitive stress of running.  Some exercise, such as swimming and dance, can also improve your flexibility, and offset some of the tightness caused by running. Cross training can also help to prevent injuries, by reducing the extent of muscle imbalance, and by replacing running with non-weight bearing activities, eliminating some of the impact on the ground.

Many runners switch to cycling or swimming if they have an injury which stops them from running as a way to keep fit, and in pursuit of the enorphin-fuelled “buzz” of exercise which they would otherwise miss.

There is a rule of thumb that runners may find useful when thinking about cross training.  Swimming one mile is roughly “equivalent” (in terms of energy expenditure and benefits to fitness) to four miles of running; and four miles of running are in turn roughly equivalent to sixteen miles of cycling.

Cross training: weight training

One particular form of cross training merits particular mention: working out in the gym.  Bruce Fordyce, the legendary winner of the Comrades ultra-marathon in South Africa, attributes his success in part to his regular gym workouts.

Weight training can increase the strength and stability of the upper body, which in turn improves running efficiency.  It also builds lean muscle, which increases the metabolic rate, reducing your fat, and enhances the body’s ability to store glycogen.

However, weight training which increases your muscles size increases your weight, which is a handicap for long distance runners.  If you are a seriously competitive runner for whom additional weight is likely to influence your performance, you should use weights in a way that increase your strength and muscle tone but not muscle bulk (ie do lots of repetitions with light weights).

You don’t need to be a member of a gym to do effective strength exercises for your upper or lower body.  There are lots of exercises you can do at home, without any special equipment, such as press ups, sit ups, leg raises and knee bends.

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