Cross training is important. It’s more than important—it might rise to the level of vital. Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the very definition of insanity. Why should I expect to get better as a runner if all I ever do is the same thing? I know I’m not alone—runners and cyclists think only with their legs and their hearts, the two parts that keep ’em going. What I tend to forget is that cross training won’t transform me into a triathlete (I don’t have fond thoughts of road biking), nor will it convert me into a hulking tower of muscle. Rather, cross training will make me a better runner, increase my overall fitness and strength, and keep me pounding the pavement for many years to come.Above Photo By: Ian Matteson
I am a runner. Six out of seven mornings, before the sun is up, you’ll see my blinking light as I skulk through neighborhoods. I love the agony of the mental argument on cold winter mornings, and savor the first eye-opening gasp of frigid air while the rest of the world stays snuggled under down duvets. The sound of my feet against the groggy pavement sets the rhythm for the day, and I take special pleasure in participating in a sport where spitting is acceptable behavior. What I am terrible at is cross training. If you’re so inclined, join me for some cross-training tips that will help us all become better athletes.
Grab your latex (swim cap) and goggles and meet me in the pool. I’m the one wearing water wings. Swimming laps won’t jeopardize your cardiovascular fitness, and it may prolong your running and cycling longevity. In the pool, try swimming 10 laps (one lap is there and back) without stopping. Harder than you thought? You probably don’t want to know that 10 laps in a standard 25-yard pool is just over a quarter-mile. Increase the number of laps and minimize the time you spend huffing and puffing at the wall as you get your sea-legs beneath you. If you have bad shoulder like I do (I swam competitively for too many years), try running in the deep end with the help of a flotation belt. This offers similar benefits to running on land, minus body-jarring impact. Keep your body erect with a slight forward lean, and run as you would on land. Change up your leg action to keep it interesting: high knees for marching in place, or extend your legs for a scissor-like, cross-country skiing motion.
While runners benefit from doing a bit of cycling and cyclists benefit from doing a bit of running, runners benefit more immediately from quality time in the saddle. Find a bike, and go pedal outside. If weather conditions suggest otherwise, find a gym with a spin class. Simply parking your rear on the stationary bike at the gym and leisurely cycling while you take in the first half of a football game is good, but it hardly qualifies as cross-training. Varied speeds and resistance create a heart-pumping, leg-burning workout unlike the ones you get when you’re propelled by your paws, even if you are doing speedwork or running hill sprints.
Cyclists who have never run before may not benefit from spending $150 on new shoes and trying to finish a 5K on the first outing. That being said, it is smart to spend the money on a decent pair of running shoes that fit your feet and your stride, and ease into running one to two days per week. At first, maybe run five blocks, and then walk one. Repeat ad nauseam. Eventually, increase the number of blocks you run until you’re counting in miles and not blocks.
Golf isn’t bad as cross-training goes, so long as you’re walking the full 18 holes and not using a caddy.
Walking itself is great cross-training—move with a purpose and good form. If you’re slouching along the sidewalk, the benefit of walking will be minimal, though still better than sitting on the couch with a bag of BBQ chips. Hiking is also great cross-training, and you get to explore areas of the world you may not otherwise frequent.
In the gym, the elliptical trainer might look goofy, but for runners and cyclists alike, it’s a cross-training dream, especially if the machine has arm-poles connected to it. All you have to do it get on, set the workout, grab the poles, and get moving. This low-impact beauty includes components of running, walking, and cycling, it activates your core, and it engages your upper arms for a full-body workout. Try to vary the resistance levels—keeping those machines on resistance level one won’t provide much in terms of a good workout.
Strength training is also a form of cross-training, and it’s important not just for winning arm-wrestling tournaments. Both running and cycling use a lot of front-leg strength, and often times, hamstrings get the short end of the stick. Muscle imbalances not only lead to injury but also adversely impact performance. When you’re fully balanced, all of your muscles work better. The following exercises will benefit every athlete, two-footed and two-wheeled alike.
Squats: good form necessitates engaging your core as you work your entire legs and butt.
Lunges: can be performed in several different manners, all of which are good for a full-leg and butt workout.
Jumping: front and back, with a Bosu ball, with or without weight; keep your core tight and posture upright to maximize the benefits.
Single-leg deadlift: this exercise exposes differences in leg strength, so be careful not to load up on weight if you’re starting with your strong leg.
Single-leg squats: again, this exposes leg strength differences and engages your core on a level never before felt.
Single-leg drops: this exploits strength imbalances, and so long as you use good form, this will work your butt and piriformis like none other.
It’s easy to forget about your arms, but upper body strength dramatically improves both cycling and running performance. Runners and cyclists both eschew upper body weightlifting for fear of bulking up and looking like a muscle-bound superhero. Rest assured, this will not happen when you only hit the gym twice a week. While recent studies suggest low-weight/high-repetition may not be the most effective method, getting the weight in matters, not how. Not only will you build overall body strength and stability, your bones will thank you later on down the road.
Pull-up: this deceptively simple exercise uses your body weight against you while simultaneously engaging muscles in your arms, back, core, and chest. Many gyms have pull-up assist machines that help you get started if you can’t pull your entire body weight up.
Bench press: this focuses on your chest, and like all other exercise, form matters, whether you’re using the bench or a stability ball, a single bar, or individual weights.
Overhead pull-downs: this can be performed using a machine or free-weights. If you’re using the machine, lift the leg cushions all the way up, essentially making them obsolete and removing your chance to cheat. If you’re using free weights, you want to be challenged, but be able to lift each arm at the same rate and with the same form.
Bicep curls: everyone does them and with good reason, given how hard your biceps work. Pick your weight based on your weak arm. Flex, baby, flex.
Tricep curls: balance is where it’s at, and if we’re getting guns, we might as well have balanced ones. You can do this with one or two weights, standing up, sitting down, lying down, or on a stability ball. If you fear free weights, machines work well, too.