Cross-training observations

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This topic contains 2 replies, has 2 voices, and was last updated by  EastRiver 14 years ago.

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  • #2190


    Having asked earlier for advice about training through an injury that prevents me from running – in my case, patellar tendinitis – I’m reporting back about my experiences with cross-training in general and with different methods in particular.

    My main overall discovery has been that I have a lot of trouble doing any single cardio exercise (other than running) for as long as I would normally run. The obstacles are physical and mental. My knee keeps me from using many cardio machines (stationary bike, elliptical trainer, etc.). And I find it hard to stay on any machine, or in the pool, for very long without yielding to the urge to stare at the clock – which makes the workout seem all the more drawn out. So even when I combine all the exercises I’m able to do into a single workout, I can’t work out for as long I’d normally run.

    I think that anyone who is able to use a variety of machines or has the mental discipline to work hard on one machine for a long time should be able to maintain cardiovascular fitness during their period away from running. While you’re likely to lose some running-specific fitness and return a bit slower than before, I expect that this loss will be fairly easy to make up. (More on that after I start running again.)

    I’ve also found it helpful to use a heart rate monitor while cross-training. With most cross-training methods, your perception of effort at a given heart rate is a lot different than it would be while running. Using a heart rate monitor allows you to strive for a certain exertion level with greater precision.

    As for the cross-training methods I’ve tried, here are my purely subjective observations about them, presented in order from most favored method to least:

    Water running has allowed me to get the best workouts with minimal stress on my knee. Without impacts and with the added resistance, I’ve been able to do properly challenging cardio work while using most of my running muscles. I’ve found that getting a good workout in the pool calls for several measures. The first is to maintain a fast turnover, even at the expense of strict land-running form. The second is to work hard with your arms, by swinging them in a much longer arc than you would on land and doing so with as much force as you can muster. This increases the demands on your cardiovascular system. And the last, and possibly most important, is to do intervals. Perceived exertion in the pool is higher than on land, even after adjusting for differences in heart rates, and water running is dull. These two factors make it hard to sustain a hard effort for very long. Doing intervals gives you the mental and physical breaks needed to complete a long workout. (Pete Pfitzinger has a good article on water running, with training program, here:

    Swimming is a good full-body, low-impact exercise. It also calls for a great deal of upper-body muscular endurance. Even though I was a competitive swimmer in high school, I now lack the muscular endurance that it takes to get a steady, sustained cardio workout by swimming. As with water running, doing intervals makes it easier to prolong a workout.

    Rowing on an ergometer is another good full-body exercise. Since it involves so many big muscle groups, you can really get your heart pumping. Rowing also causes few, if any, impacts. Maintaining good form on an ergometer is important, since it’s easy to overstress your lower back and knees if you do it wrong. Another key to successful rowing is to build up the duration and intensity of your workouts cautiously. A runner with good cardiovascular fitness and upper-body muscular endurance can probably hop on an ergometer and crank out a 45-minute workout the first day, but that runner would likely wake up very sore the next morning. At first, rowing is probably best as a stage of a cardio workout involving a mix of machinesrather than a full workout.

    Cycling is probably the best way for a runner to get a long cardio workout of moderate intensity. If you’re riding outside, you get many of the benefits of a long run: sun, fresh air, scenery, changing terrain. If you’re on a stationary bike, you can read, which occupies your mind enough that you can lose track of time. (All of which is good, given that time spent on the bike is not equal to time spent running. As others have pointed out, here and elsewhere, you need to cycle for 3-4 times as long as you would run in order to get an equivalent workout.) I consider cycling less than ideal when it comes to doing really intense workouts. Perceived exertion on these things is even higher, at equivalent heart rates, than water running, so it’s hard to send your heart rate skyward.

    Elliptical trainers, frankly, suck. While they involve minimal to zero impacts, I found that the motion is close enough to running that I can’t perform it without pain in my knee. I suspect that many overuse injuries present a similar limitation. And unlike stationery bikes, elliptical trainers are incompatible with reading, so I find them oppressively boring. Thirty minutes on an elliptical trainer causes me far more mental anguish than any other exercise. That said, you can do a pretty hard workout on an elliptical trainer because 1) you can use your upper body and lower body and 2) you are bearing your body weight, rather than resting it on a seat or floating it in water.

  • #17542



    Thanks for posting your experiences with cross training. So many time people surf in here, ask for advice, then we never hear from them again. How’s the knee doing? Do you think it’s getting any better? Are you doing anything else to help it heal?

    I’ve never been on an elliptical but I was surprised to hear you can’t read on one. Somewhere along the lines I came across the blog of a gal who runs. Even when she’s healthy she’ll spend up to 2 hours on an elliptical machine just reading books and magazines.

    Do they still make the Nordic Track machines that simulate classical x-c skiing? You never see them in clubs any more. It seems like that’d be good for your cardio without a lot of stress on your knee. Maybe you could invest in some skis (depending on where you live) or roller skis.

  • #17543

    Zeke wrote:
    How’s the knee doing? Do you think it’s getting any better? Are you doing anything else to help it heal?


    My knee has felt much better since I started doing only deep water running for cardio workouts. Just after I stopped running I didn’t have access to a pool, so I did a lot of cycling and elliptical training. Both exercises are zero-to-low impact but require vigorous leg extensions. While my knee didn’t hurt during the workouts, it would be sore the morning after. Water running, however, involves much softer leg extensions, and the reduced stress has eliminated my post-workout soreness and greatly alleviated my general walking-around soreness.

    In the third week after my injury, I started going to physical therapy. (I’d have liked to start sooner but my stingy insurance company made me jump through barbed-wire hoops to get approval.) After two sessions, my knee has improved a lot. The treatment I’ve gotten has included massage, aided stretching, ITB loosening on the foam roller (pure agony), electric stimulation of my left quad, icing, focused strength training, and ultrasound on the affected tissues. I also credit my PT with recommending things to do on my own: self-massage with The Stick, trigger-point therapy with a baseball, and gentler stretches. Plus I’ve been icing my knee frequently every day, based on my doctor’s recommendation to “live with an ice pack.”

    While dealing with this injury I’ve learned a lot about how to stay healthy. Above all, I appreciate how helpful it is to keep one’s muscles loose. By “loose” I mean not just flexible, but also free of knots and general tightness. The relief in my knee after I thoroughly work my leg muscles over with The Stick and a baseball (used to apply acute pressure on trigger points) and stretched them is dramatic.

    I’m also planning to resume regular strength training for my legs. At my initial consultation, my PT assessed my leg strength, found it feeble, and told me I need to get stronger. Her reasoning: weak muscles force connective tissues to absorb a greater share of the impacts on your body, which leads to injuries over time. Although I have no experience suggesting that resistance training prevents injuries, I know that not lifting didn’t help me avoid an injury. Maybe there’s no causal link, but I figure I should continue lifting after my knee heals and see if I stay healthy.

    Zeke wrote:
    I’ve never been on an elliptical but I was surprised to hear you can’t read on one. Somewhere along the lines I came across the blog of a gal who runs. Even when she’s healthy she’ll spend up to 2 hours on an elliptical machine just reading books and magazines.

    I should have been more specific about whether one can read on an elliptical trainer. I can’t because my head moves too much for me to focus on a printed page. That’s probably because I have lousy elliptical technique—as with running, you’re best off minimizing the vertical movement of your torso. People who can do that, like the blogging runner you mentioned, should be fine because most elliptical trainers have a place where you can rest a book or magazine.

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