Eight Benefits Of Cross-Training: By Matt Fitzgerald From the August 2004 issue of Runner’s World
If you ask 10 other runners to name a benefit of cross-training, at least 8 of them will mention injury prevention. But although injury prevention is by far the most widely recognized benefit of cross-training among runners, it’s hardly the only one.
If you ask 10 other runners to name a benefit of cross-training, at least 8 of them will mention injury prevention. But although injury prevention is by far the most widely recognized benefit of cross-training among runners, it’s hardly the only one. Runners can also use cross-training to rehabilitate injuries, improve fitness, promote recovery, enhance motivation, rejuvenate the mind and body during breaks from formal training, enjoy competing in other endurance sports, and even stay fit through pregnancy. Related to the benefit of injury prevention, cross-training can also prolong your running career.
The good news is that you don’t have to do eight different kinds of cross-training to get these eight distinct benefits (seven if you’re male). You can enjoy them all by supplementing your running with a little strength training, flexibility training, and endurance cross-training (for instance, bicycling or swimming). Each of these three forms of cross-training has its own relationship to the benefits I’ve just mentioned, but there’s plenty of overlap.
This article was excerpted from the Runner’s World Guide to Cross Training, by Matt Fitzgerald. Check it out for more great tips on how to incorporate cross training into your running program to stay strong and healthy.
Benefit #1: Injury PreventionOveruse injuries are the curse of the running life, a never-ending epidemic among pavement (and trail) pounders everywhere. Nevertheless, injuries aren’t inevitable. Most overuse injuries can be prevented or at least prevented from returning. (More than half of running injuries are actually reinjuries.) Most of them can be blamed on four factors.1. Inadequate recovery (when your body doesn’t fully recover from one run to the next)2. Biomechanical irregularities (such as overpronation and leg-length discrepancy)3. Muscular imbalances caused by running itself (tight hamstrings and weak quadriceps, for example)4. Improper or worn-out footwearCross-training can’t help you with your footwear choices, but it can address the other three factors.If you’re a beginning runner who hasn’t yet developed strength and flexibility imbalances, you can get big benefits from endurance cross-training. Your ankles, knees, and lower back aren’t used to the repetitive impact of running, so you can use walking, elliptical machines, and other low-impact conditioning tools to improve endurance without beating up your most vulnerable joints, muscles, and connective tissues. You can gradually mix in some running once you’ve established a base of fitness (and lost some weight, if that’s an issue).
Endurance cross-training can therefore help you ease into the sport, if you’re a new runner, by reducing the amount of impact your body absorbs. And if you’re a veteran runner, it helps you stay in the sport. It isn’t uncommon for longtime runners to lose so much knee cartilage through repetitive impact that they develop osteoarthritis and are forced to hang up their shoes. By mixing in some weight lifting and swimming today, you just might spare yourself the frustration of only being able to swim and lift weights in the future.
Benefit #2: Rehabilitation
When an overuse injury does develop, cross-training comes to the rescue in two ways: by helping runners maintain fitness despite being forced to run less or not at all and by correcting the cause of the injury.
Of course, your immediate goal with any injury is to resume normal training as soon as possible. But if you can’t resume normal training immediately, your best option is to adopt a modified training program that allows you to maintain running-specific fitness without exacerbating your injury or prolonging the recovery process. The best alternatives are water running, elliptical training, bicycling, and inline skating, because they closely simulate the action and demands of running. If you can approximate the volume and perhaps the intensity of your running workouts, you should be able to maintain your conditioning. If you’ve been laid up for a while and you sense that your running fitness is in rapid decline, these cross-training activities should at the very least begin to reverse that process.
Benefit #3: Greater Running Fitness
There are many worthy motivations to run, but the desire to run faster is the most fundamental. Even if you’re slower than most runners and you don’t get too caught up in your race times, you still pay attention to them, and establishing a new personal best still gives you satisfaction.
Cross-training is a very reliable means to become a faster runner. To make an absolute statement might be going too far, but I think it’s safe to say that almost every runner can run faster by cross-training appropriately than by running only. There are three main ways in which supplemental training outside the discipline of running can enhance one’s running ability. Specifically, it can:
1. Enhance a runner’s efficiency.
2. Increase a runner’s power.
3. Increase the amount of time a runner is able to spend training without accumulating fatigue or getting injured.
Better efficiency, more strength and power, and greater training volume without additional breakdown–these are the ways in which cross-training directly boosts running fitness. But I should mention that all of the other reasons to cross-train discussed in this chapter have a beneficial, if indirect, impact on performance. I mentioned, for example, that cross-training can reduce injuries. This allows you to train more consistently, and that, of course, makes you better prepared to race. Using cross-training for active recovery (reason number 4, discussed below) can enhance your recovery between key workouts, so you perform better in your key workouts, get a more powerful training effect from them, and again achieve a higher level of fitness by race day. And so forth.
Benefit #4: Active Recovery
It is an irrefutable but too often overlooked fact that workouts help you achieve athletic conditioning only when followed by rest and recovery-promoting activities. (Obviously, nutrition and hydration play major roles in recovery, but I want to keep our discussion focused on exercise.)
Periods of outright rest are, of course, essential, but the runner who performs active-recovery workouts between most pairs of key workouts will become fitter than the runner who does not, provided he or she has gradually worked toward being able to handle the frequency of training involved. While the runner who does not perform active-recovery workouts gets more rest than the runner who does, it’s actually the latter who gets more recovery. Again, this is primarily because the 2 hours immediately following a workout are far more valuable to most adaptive processes (including our example of glycogen storage) than are the hours following those first 2. It may be counterintuitive, but it’s true nevertheless that in the context of a rigorous training program, light workouts accelerate recovery beyond what happens during outright rest by just slightly increasing the body’s need for recovery.
Your key workouts–that is, your high-intensity workouts and your extra-long workouts–are the most important to your running performance, so those should almost always be runs. When you’re injured, you should perform cross-training workouts that match your intended run workouts in duration, structure, and intensity. But if you can run, you will be best served to make all of your key workouts runs and all of your endurance cross-training workouts active-recovery sessions.