Cross training
by on Thursday, June 19, 2014  (2 comments)


I had a couple conversations recently that made me realize that some of my past statements about cross training may have given a false impression of my current opinion on it. I'd like to take a few moments to clear up any misconceptions and to explain where I believe there is value in cross training and where there isn't.

First, though, a little on the history of my views on cross training. I think maybe my history will shed some light on how I've come to my current viewpoint and maybe how these misconceptions about my current viewpoint happened.

I've always been a very resilient runner. In my 24+ years as a runner, I've suffered one injury of note, a relatively minor pulled hamstring. My body has always held up to anything I could throw at it, from 150+ mile weeks to track workouts that many runners would consider insane to ski hill repeats. Not only did my body hold up to this level of training but I never lost motivation. I was always ready for the next run or the next workout. For a long time, when I was almost solely focused on my own running and how to maximize my own abilities, I questioned the need of cross training. If you can run more, why not run more? Why take away from your running to do something else? The specificity of training principle, which I always have and always will strongly believe in, says this is a mistake.

Then, as I started to focus more on training theory and helping others, I noticed a different world than my own. I recognized runners around me who just couldn't do what I was doing. For whatever reason, their bodies just didn't hold up to the running the way mine did. Or their motivation would lag whenever their training climbed. I also noticed runners with a host of priorities. From triathletes to runners who also participated in other sports, they weren't solely focused on running the way I was. It's at this point that I realized there were three very good reasons for cross training.

1) Physical Limitations

While my body could take anything I threw at it, not everyone out there was that way. I may not have recognized it at some points but, all my running life, I was surrounded by people whose bodies would just break down if they tried to do too much. So their running was limited by injury risk to a greater extent than it was by time and energy. It made perfect sense for these people to supplement their running with additional exercises.

2) Motivational Limitations

Another thing that was never a problem for me was keeping my motivation up. I simply love running so I've never had serious motivational issues. Sure, we all have those days that we'd rather not be out running but, when they are short term issues, you can just plow through them. However, once I looked closely again, I could see runners around me for whom trying to carry a big training load just wore on them mentally. They could not keep their motivation up to carry the big training load through running only. For them, cross training would keep things fresh and they could increase their overall training load through it.

3) Other Priorities

Finally, I've always been a runner. Not just first and foremost. I've only been a runner. Since taking up running in 1990, I've never had any interest in cycling, swimming or any other sport. I'm all in. That's not the case for many runners, though. Whether they compete in sports like triathlon where running is only one of multiple disciplines they will be using or sports like swimming or cycling where running will have some tangential benefits but doesn't play a direct role, they do have other things to think about. They have to prepare for those other disciplines they want to compete in. What may look like cross training to the runner may, for them, be primary discipline training in another discipline they want to be good at.

What to do?

So what do we do from here? Well, it depends on who you are and what your situation is.

If your goals revolve around running, then you want to run the most you can while remaining healthy and motivated. If you've hit that upper limit of your running capacity and you still have time and energy, find something else you can do to supplement your running while still remaining healthy and motivated. The most important thing, though, is to make sure that those extra exercises are supplementing, not replacing, your running. If your goals revolve around running, then you have to make running your top priority and prioritize that.

If you have goals outside of running, then it's a little more difficult to draw the line. You have to decide how important running is to you compared to the other sports in your life. Then you have to structure your training accordingly. Do what you can to have running supplement your other sports and to have your other sports supplement your running but you'll have to draw the line at some point. When that happens, you'll have to decide where your priorities are.

Final Word

If you can run more, why not run more? If your goals are focused on running, I still believe this. If you can't run more, though, because you will get hurt or lose your motivation, why not use any extra available energy to supplement your running with other exercises? Of course, if your goals go beyond running, it makes perfect sense that you have to train for those other goals.

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I have always agreed with your cross training theory, Ryan. If you can run more, why not run more? Why do something else and take time away from running? Like you, I've been very fortunate to never have suffered a running injury that took more than a few days to a couple of weeks to resolve. If I could maintain my motivation, I could just keep running. I've had some motivation issues, but they were always related to other stresses in my life and not specifically training volume. It was the addition of hard training to everything else in my life that caused me to mentally burn out.

All that changed last year when I suffered my first serious running injury. I injured my knee to the point of not being able to walk without a limp. It took several months before I could run without pain, but it did resolve, for the most part. One year later, after a 240 day running streak, close to 2,000 miles later, I re-injured my knee.

This time the doctor ordered the MRI and I found out I have cartilage damage and a torn meniscus. There are several options on how to treat this and I have not yet decided what to do. One option is surgery, but that is no guarantee my knee will feel better. There's always the option to do nothing for now and see what happens. Cartilage cannot heal or grow back, especially not in someone my age so surgery is not necessarily the best option.

Regardless of what I decide to do, most likely if I want to increase my training volume now or in the future, surgery or no surgery, I will have to add cross training. I've never done any cross training that I really enjoy as much as running so I don't even have a second activity to fall back on. When the first doctor told me to stop running I went into a mini panic! What else can I do?! What else do I want to do? Fortunately the second doctor didn't tell me to stop running so I'm running, but on a very much adjusted schedule to accommodate my knee.

I'm trying to change my mindset that running is the only thing I want to do. I have a feeling as I get older I may have to concede that I'm not invincible. Aging is a part of life and no matter how much you deny and defy your age, it sneaks up on you. You have to be smart about how you train when you get older. And as I go through this knee injury, an injury caused by wear and tear over the years, I'm realizing I need to adjust my views on cross training. Maybe running more is not the smartest thing for me to do if I want to keep running for many more years.

The hard part for me is figuring out what my cross training activity is going to be. I'm taking suggestions.

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Jackie, as you know we have been on the same wavelength when it comes to cross training. In the future, I think we also will but probably with a different outlook.

I think runners can be very successful with a cross training regimen. Just look at what Lauren Fleshman has done, at times with almost no running. Or what Meb has done in recent years, as he shifts some of his running load to cross training methods. Will it be as effective as all running? Not if one can stay healthy with all running but it will be far better than if you try doing more running, end up hurt and as a result can't maintain any kind of consistency.

As for cross training suggestions, my only suggestion is find something you can enjoy. It will only do you good if it's something you can and will continue to do consistently.

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