As recently as 10 years ago, few elite runners did much in the way of cross-training, which I like to define broadly to include all forms of resistance training, stretching, and non-impact endurance training activities such as bicycling.
Non-impact alternatives to running were grudgingly taken up only when injuries made running impossible and were quickly cast aside when running was resumed.
Most of the elite runners of the previous generation did some stretching, but without much effect on injury risk because they usually failed to customize their stretching routine to fit their individual needs. Only a handful of runners did any amount of resistance training, and again, with questionable methods.
Within the past few years, a rapidly growing number of elite runners (in the United States, at least) have chosen to make cross-training central to their training programs and have begun using more sophisticated methods.
The athletes leading this trend are crediting the new approach to cross-training with reducing injuries, accelerating injury rehabilitation, facilitating recovery, and not least of all, helping them run faster by increasing their aerobic fitness, power, and efficiency.
The poster boy of the new approach to cross-training is Alan Webb, winner of the 2004 Olympic Trials 1500 meters. Under the guidance of his coach, Scott Raczko, Webb maintains an unorthodox training schedule in which less than half of his training time is spent on running.
The rest is spent on dynamic stretching and flexibility drills, medicine ball exercises, calisthenics, balance training, pool running, and functional strength training.
The rationale is simple. Webb, like any other runner, can only do so much running without getting injured. But the maximum amount of running he can handle is not the maximum amount of total exercise he can handle.
By doing other types of training that enhance his fitness in ways that complement his running, he can actually reduce his injury risk while further enhancing his running performance.
Few age-group runners are willing to follow an example like Webb's, in part because they simply prefer running to other forms of exercise, but mostly because they aren't fully convinced of the benefits of cross-training.
So I'd like to devote this first installment of my six-part series on cross-training to giving you a hard sell on the benefits of cross-training.
I want to first persuade you to give an honest try to a balanced cross-training approach to training for distance running. Then, in subsequent articles, I can move on to explain how.
For a full treatment of this topic, including complete cross-training-based training programs for all types of runners, see my book, "Runner's World Guide to Cross-Training" (Rodale, 2004).
Following are five proven benefits of cross-training.
1. Fewer injuries
Many overuse injuries are caused by instability in the hips, knees, and ankles resulting from inadequate strength in important stabilizing muscles. For example, weak hip abductors (the muscles on the outside of the hip) can cause the pelvis to tip toward your unsupported side when your foot lands, placing undue strain on the hip and/or knee joints. Strength training can correct such problems.
Tightness in certain muscles and tendons also contributes to some running injuries. For example, runners who develop iliotibial (IT) band friction syndrome typically have tight IT bands. Stretching can loosen tight connective tissues and thereby prevent such injuries.
Finally, by replacing one or two weekly recovery runs with easy workouts in non-impact modalities such as bicycling and pool running you can reduce the amount of repetitive impact your lower extremities are subjected to, and in this way reduce injuries (without sacrificing fitness). Impact forces are the true origin of nearly every running injury.
2. Faster rehabilitation
When you do get injured, cross-training comes to the rescue by correcting the root cause of the problem, allowing you to get you back on the road quickly and reducing the risk that this particular injury will recur. (An estimated 50% of all running injuries are in fact re-injuries.)
For example, eccentric strengthening of the calf muscles is a very effective way to correct the root cause of Achilles tendinosis, which is essentially an inability of the calf muscles to properly absorb impact forces.
Non-impact cardio workouts can be used to maintain your aerobic fitness while your running is limited due to injury. Olympic silver medallist Meb Keflezighi used this strategy with great success when injuries hampered his running in the lead-up to the 2004 Olympic Trials Marathon.
By replacing a number of runs with bike workouts he was able to build enough fitness despite his injury setbacks to finish second in that race and earn a trip to Athens.
3. Greater aerobic fitness
Due to the pounding running inflicts, even the most gifted runners can handle no more than about 15 hours of running per week, whereas athletes in non-impact endurance sports such as swimming and cycling routinely perform twice this amount of training.
By adding non-impact cardio workouts to your running schedule, you can gain a little extra aerobic fitness without increasing your injury risk.
4. More power
Another benefit of strength training -- particularly of jumping drills, or plyometrics -- is increased stride power, which translates into greater stride length and reduced ground contact time and consequently faster race times.
Among the recent studies demonstrating these benefits was a Swedish study in which trained runners replaced 32% of their running with plyometrics for a period of nine weeks.
After nine weeks, their maximum sprint speed, running economy, and 5K race times were all found to have improved, whereas runners in a control group who maintained their normal training schedule showed no improvements.
5. Greater efficiency
Dynamic flexibility is the ability to perform sports movements such as running with minimal internal resistance from your own muscles and joints.
Dynamic stretches are movements that enhance dynamic flexibility by mimicking the way your muscles and connective tissues actually stretch during running. An example is giant walking lunges (i.e. walking with the most ridiculously long steps you can take).
Performing dynamic stretches on a regular basis reduces internal resistance in your running movements and thereby enhances the efficiency of your stride.
In part two of this series we'll take a closer look at strength training.Part 2: Strength training Part 3: Stretching Part 4: Non-impact cardio training Part 5: Form training Part 6: Shoe and foot science
Matt Fitzgerald coaches runners and triathletes and is the author of "Triathlete Magazine's Complete Triathlon Book" and "Runner's World Guide to Cross-Training."