Why Should Runners Cross Train?
It’s always surprising how few distance runners actually cross train – many just get up and run, maybe with a few minimal stretches. However, a proper cross training regime can not only strengthen the rest of your body, but can up your running game too. It makes you much less injury prone and will improve your performance. When you’re in training for an event, free time to train can be a luxury in-between everything else in life – and actual running will always be the most important form of training.
It’s a fact that some of us just don’t have the time in our schedules for any form of cross training – but if you can squeeze in just an hour or two a week, the results will show themselves during your event. I personally have found that working out in the gym has had a significant impact on my endurance, which helps a lot when you’re several hours into a long race.
In his book ‘Running Strong’, Dr Jordan Metzl speaks a lot about the ‘kinetic chain’ – this is all the muscles, bones and joints that move when you go running. The problem is, running loads can create weaknesses and imbalances in these areas, which will end up leading to injuries. You can have the strongest calves in the world, but if you’ve got weak hamstrings or glutes then you’re heading for a knee injury.
So how to combat this?
Stretching For Runners
The easiest way to save yourself from these problems is basic stretches and strength training. Dedicating 10-20 minutes each morning to stretching and strengthening is a pretty solid way to reduce your chances of injury drastically. Some stretches I find useful for running (you can type these into Youtube to find good videos on how to do them):
- Hamstring Stretch
- Calf Raises
- Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch
- Standing Lunges
Squat Start Position
Squat Finish Position
Squats in particular build up functional strength throughout the legs, minimise muscular imbalances that lead to injury and help with range-of-motion.
Low Intensity Work-outs
Doing low-intensity activities are awesome for maintaining your fitness on non-running days and giving your upper body a workout too. Swimming is great for recovery days, as it’s so low-impact on the entire body, while letting you stretch out and do some cardio. Yoga, pilates and other non-contact activities can help you focus on your muscles and flexibility.
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Strength Training – Gym Work
To me, if you want to focus on being a stronger runner, your cross training time should mainly be spent in the gym. I find that hitting the gym three times a week has had a huge impact on my long distance running performance. In particular, one of those days will be dedicated to only working on my legs. That’s not to say that the upper body can be neglected – working on good upper body strength and a strong core means that you have better form and are much less injury-prone when you run long distances. A weak core, hips and glutes contribute to so many injuries, doing some gym work can help re-calibrate some of those imbalances in your system. I tend to focus on a lot of body-weight work to strengthen my core and relative strength – so things like push-ups, pull-ups, squats (once you are comfortable with body-weight squats, you can add dumb-bells). From my own experience, I’ve found that since I’ve incorporated strength training into my workout, my endurance has went through the roof. Many hours into ultramarathons, I still feel strong as I pass others who are bent-double and clearly in physical discomfort. It’s the main area I feel most distance runners neglect, and I always try and persuade my friends to spend more time at the gym.
Other Forms of Cross Training
There are countless other forms of cross training you can incorporate into your training schedule – cycling is a pretty popular one. Many runners have other sports and hobbies they already do, which they incorporate into their training. If you’re looking for cross training ideas, you should try to think of activities that are a good cardiovascular work-out, but are relatively low-impact (in order to minimise the chances of injury). So badminton and swimming are in, martial arts are probably out.