Endurance Cross-Training

November 18, 2008 by  
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Endurance cross-training includes pool running, bicycling and other forms of nonimpact cardiovascular exercise. It is a great way for runners to heighten their fitness while avoiding injuries.

By Matt Fitzgerald

I use the term endurance cross-training when I’m talking about nonimpact forms of cardiovascular exercise such as pool running and bicycling. There are a few different ways that runners can incorporate those and other types of endurance cross-training into their programs. What’s best for you depends on your needs, goals, experience, and preferences–just as with any other kind of training.

I believe that endurance cross-training has at least seven (or eight for women) distinct purposes. Click here to read the Eight Benefits of Cross-Training.

From this group of benefits and a universe of possible ways to achieve them, I think we can identify three general approaches to endurance cross-training that together encompass the needs of all runners.

First is the minimalist approach. This is for those who have little interest in endurance activities other than running or who are completely focused on racing and have no special physical needs that require them to do more than the minimum amount of cross-training. My recommendation for these runners is that they typically perform one endurance cross-training workout per week for active recovery. When injured or especially sore, they can replace individual runs with endurance cross-training workouts as necessary.

Second is the special needs approach for runners who are especially injury-prone or have other weaknesses that the minimalist approach can’t help. These runners may find themselves doing an endurance cross-training workout for every run. If you fall into this category, you’ll most likely try a variety of activities and ratios before you figure out what works best. Take, for example, a very lithe runner who has two problems: recurring shin splints and lack of muscular strength. For her, the perfect weekly cross-training schedule might include three or four running workouts and two or three bicycle rides. Cycling deals with both of her problems: It builds leg strength and lets her avoid the repetitive impact that causes shin splints in the first place.

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. Click here.

Finally, there’s the maximalist approach, which satisfies the needs of runners who simply enjoy participating in other endurance activities and may also compete in other endurance sports. The runners in this group can do more or less whatever they please–that’s the point–as long as they avoid three possible problems.1. Doing more total training than they can handle2. Running so little that their running performance slips3. Training inappropriately for their alternative endurance sport or sports (overtraining, undertraining, creating muscular imbalances, et cetera)How to Choose?The rest of this article provides the information you need to choose the best activities and use them effectively. This is by no means a complete list–not one word about skipping rope!–but I think the six endurance activities I describe are the most beneficial, practical, and interesting for runners. I list them in the order I’d recommend them to a cross-training minimalist who’s primarily interested in using them for active recovery.Pool RunningAlso called deep-water running, this is the most running-specific form of endurance cross-training, involving more or less the same action as land running but with greater resistance and virtually no impact. That puts it at the top of the list for injured runners. Runners who’ve used pool running for extended periods of rehabilitation when unable to run on land tell me that making the adjustment back to land running is surprisingly easy. You do lose some timing, which returns quickly, and you do have to readjust to the impact involved in conventional running. But you don’t lose fitness. And pool running can be performed by runners with a wider variety of injuries than any other activity except swimming.Elliptical TrainingAn elliptical trainer looks somewhat similar to a stairclimbing machine, and its action feels like a mix of stairclimbing and cross-country skiing. The only cardiovascular activity that’s more similar to running is pool running. The key difference: While elliptical training involves no impact, it is a weight-bearing activity. Thus, pool running is a better choice for runners who have injuries that make it impossible or inadvisable to perform any weight-bearing exercise, but elliptical training is better for helping you maintain your body’s impact-absorbing capacity.

Bicycling
Back in the day, bicycling (outdoors and indoors) was more or less the only form of endurance cross-training runners used. It was, for example, Frank Shorter’s cross-training activity of choice. As a repetitive-motion activity in which the legs do the work, it develops a form of fitness that’s highly transferable to running. Many elite road cyclists can run an excellent 10-K on the basis of their bike training alone. But unlike running, cycling is a nonimpact activity, so it can serve runners well as a recovery or rehabilitation workout.

Inline Skating
Inline skating, like running, is all about the legs. But the lower-body muscles that do the most work during inline skating are those that do the least while running. Inline skating works mainly the buttocks, hip abductors (outer hip muscles), quadriceps, and shins; running, as we’ve discussed, focuses on the gluteals, hamstrings, and calves.

The fact that inline skating is a kind of muscular mirror image of running makes it a great cross-training choice for a runner who’s interested in rounding out the muscular development of the lower body and in preventing or correcting the muscular imbalances that so often contribute to overuse injuries. Inline skating entails greater average resistance than running, so it’s also a good overall leg strengthener.

Swimming
In swimming, the arms produce far more force than the legs. For this reason, swimming has less crossover fitness benefit for runners than do the other endurance activities discussed in this chapter, all of which are more similar to running in their reliance on the legs. Because swimming does give the cardiovascular, metabolic, and endocrine systems a proper workout without stressing the tissues of the legs, it is a perfectly good way for runners to get an active-recovery or rehabilitative workout. I recommend swimming to runners who enjoy it more than other endurance cross-training activities, who have serious injuries that make it inadvisable or impossible to perform leg-reliant activities, or who would like to try a triathlon. Other runners would do best to choose a different activity for endurance cross-training workouts.

Cross-Country Skiing
Cross-country skiing is just about the only sport that is more physiologically intense than running. At any given effort level, skiing involves more muscle and therefore requires more oxygen than running. So runners who cross-country ski can potentially increase their aerobic capacity and improve their running. Cross-country skiing is also a great way to enhance strength in the hips, quadriceps, abdomen, and shoulders, thereby improving running economy and stride power as well as reducing susceptibility to some overuse injuries.