Marathon Training Week 12: The Importance of Cross-training for Runners

by Karl Gruber

One of the last things some runners want to hear is that they need to cross-train. “What? I just ran a hard 7 miles yesterday, and now I need to get in the gym and hit the weights, too?” To a certain extent, this is an understandable reaction; however, the merits of developing and maintaining a stronger, more balanced body are something that can most definitely keep you going in the long run.

Most of the marathon training programs emphasize a progressive build-up of running mileage over many weeks, but most will also include not only rest days, but cross-training days, too. By cross-training (usually abbreviated as “XT”), I mean other forms of exercise that utilize different muscles from running, i.e., swimming, biking, weights, yoga, etc. Exercise physiologists and coaches have recommended cross-training as a way to maintain a more overall, complete fitness level and to prevent running-specific injuries. For instance, Joe Puleo and Patrick Milroy, MD, suggest plyometric exercises in Running Anatomy, such as The Frogger. 

In this exercise position yourself in a full squat with your thighs horizontal to the ground. Inhale, sweep your arms backwards, then throw the arms forward at the same time as you explode upward and forward out of the squat position. Land once again in the full squat position and immediately repeat the jump. Perform The Frogger for six to eight reps for two to three sets. This plyometric workout develops your quadriceps, gluteus maximus, gastronemius and soleus muscles, and is particularly beneficial when running faster.

Master triathlete and swim coach Joel Friel suggests that there are 7 steps to laying the groundwork for a more well-rounded fitness level:

  1. Endurance – These workouts focus on the athlete’s ability to delay the onset of fatigue and reduce its effects. This may include longer, low-intensity workouts.
  2. Muscular Force – These workouts improve ability to overcome resistance. Workouts such as rough water swimming or biking on hills or in the wind.
  3. Speed Skills – These workouts train the athlete to move effectively in their sport (in your case, running) and usually emphasize form and technique.
  4. Muscular Endurance – These workouts train muscles to maintain a relatively high force load for a prolonged period of time (such as the marathon) by combining force and endurance training.
  5. Anaerobic Endurance – These workouts help the athlete’s ability to resist fatigue at a very high level of effort with high leg and arm turnover. 
  6. Sprint Power – This training develops the athlete’s ability to apply maximum force quickly, and usually involves short, all-out efforts.
  7. Testing – Performed on recovery weeks, testing is a good way to measure your progress throughout the season. (In your marathon training, “testing” can mean competing in shorter distance races during the weeks of your preparation). 

What are the particular benefits of forms of exercise other than running?
Swimming – You achieve both a cardio and strength training in the same workout. You’re constantly moving forward using your entire body, and fighting the resistance of the water density.
Weight Training – Increases your bone density, promotes lower fat body mass and strengthens connective tissues, muscles, and tendons.
Yoga – Increases flexibility, creates full-body musculature, reduces back pain, and teaches a calm, meditative mindfulness.
Cycling – Many of the benefits from cycling are similar to running, such as increased aerobic and cardiovascular fitness, endurance building, and strengthening your muscles. However, the different movement and technique of using both your lower and upper body will balance out what you don’t use as a runner.

I certainly don’t claim that it is easy to fit in cross-training during the many weeks of marathon run training. It should be apparent to you the overall physical benefits you will reap if you do and the lessened chance of injury from the repetitive motion and impact of running. 

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