Runner's Challenge: Weak Upper Body
Cross-Training Fix: Strength Training, Swimming
Healthy Approach: Setting PRs requires more than leg power. A strong upper body helps you process oxygen more efficiently, which allows you to run faster with less effort, Mastrangelo says. Adding upper-body work to your routine will also help you maintain your form in the late stages of a race when your form deteriorates. Runners who are new to strength training tend to get injured either by lifting too much or lifting with incorrect posture, Mastrangelo says.
She recommends first assessing the maximum amount of weight you can lift one time. Warm up with a few lightweight reps, and then see what your max is for one rep. Train at 50 to 75 percent of that. Always do your exercises in front of a mirror. If you lose proper form, lower your weight or reduce the number of repetitions in each set.
More: 3 Reasons Strength-Training Will Boost Your Running
Swimming is often praised as an ideal cross-training activity for runners because it provides an excellent cardio workout with zero impact and it strengthens muscles that running neglects. But that can lead runners into a false sense of security. Sue Levin, 45, a runner from northern California, learned the hard way. "I had been doing the butterfly stroke wrong for six months without realizing it," says Levin, whose arm injury required eight months of rehab.
Mastrangelo says to start with 20 minutes in the pool. To get a workout roughly equivalent to running, you have to swim only about one quarter of the distance you'd run. Unless you have a swimming background, stick with the freestyle stroke, which is easier to master and is effective at building upper-body strength.
Runner's Challenge: Tight Legs
Cross-Training Fix: Yoga, Pilates
Healthy Approach: Yoga and Pilates build core strength, mental focus, balance—and perhaps most important for runners—flexibility. But in our attempt to loosen our hamstrings, calves, and hips, we can push ourselves too far and end up with a strained muscle or joint. Start with a beginners class, or find an instructor who offers modified poses. "It's better to practice a beginner's version with good form than an advanced pose with bad form," says Wendy Puckett, a marathoner and owner of Steamboat Pilates in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Tell your instructor that you're a runner and whether you have any chronic injuries. She could show you how to use yoga blocks or straps to help you ease into positions.
More: 6 Yoga Poses for Runners
Runners are conditioned to run through discomfort, but if you feel pain, back off. Recognize your body's limits and have realistic expectations. "I may not be as good as the person next to me, but I just focus on my own goals," says Carrie Tollefson, 30, a 2004 1500-meter Olympian, who practices yoga. If Tollefson can turn off her competitive instinct while cross-training, the rest of us can, too.
Additional reporting by Brian D. Sabin