An Injury-Free Approach to Cross-Training

Runners cross-train to prevent injuries. so it's ironic, if not unjust, to get injured when cross-training.

Last year, I was in a Pilates class, struggling to master a hamstring-curl maneuver with my feet up on a stability ball. Although the instructor suggested a less difficult move for beginners, I forced the motion until my right hamstring felt like it was being torn to shreds. It was. My injury sidelined me from running for nearly two months.

More: 4 Ways to Stay Positive Through Injuries

Of course, Pilates and alternative forms of exercise can improve your fitness, prevent and rehabilitate injuries, promote recovery, and revive a stale routine. The trick is to approach them as a runner. Runners have their obvious strengths: power, endurance, tenacity. But within those strengths lies the potential for weakness: quads that overpower our hamstrings, neglected upper bodies, and poor flexibility—qualities that could lead to problems.

"Running makes you a fit runner," says Jason Karp, a running coach in Albuquerque, New Mexico. "But your running fitness may not translate to other activities that use your muscles and joints in different ways. Taking on too much too fast can make you vulnerable to injury." Understanding the three most common problems for runners will help you cross-train safely, so you can benefit without incident.

More: How to Avoid Runner Burnout

Runner's Challenge: Weak Hamstrings

Cross-Training Fix: Hamstring Exercises, Cycling

Healthy Approach: Quads are larger and have more muscle mass than hamstrings, so they generate at least one and a half times more power, says 1993 World Marathon Champion Mark Plaatjes, a coach and physical therapist with Boulder Running Company. "Running increases this imbalance because it's such a quad-dominated activity that it makes them even stronger," he says.

More: 5 Key Stretches for Runners

Because the hamstring is weaker and has to work harder to keep up, it's susceptible to pulls and tears. Runners aiming to reduce this imbalance often head to the gym for hamstring curls. The mistake comes in trying to lift equal amounts of weight with the hamstrings and quads. "You can't expect to get your hamstrings to 100 percent of the strength of your quads," says Plaatjes. "A good goal would be to do 50 percent of what your quads do." Start by curling 20 percent of what you can lift with leg extensions and work up from there.

Cycling and spinning also build leg strength, but unless you wear shoes that clip into the pedals, you'll be building up your quads, enhancing the imbalance. "With toe clips, you're not just pushing down, you're also pulling up—that's what hits the hamstrings," says Alysia Mastrangelo, Ph.D., assistant professor of physical therapy at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. Also watch your form. Cyclists who move side to side excessively during the downstroke motion put excess pressure on their knees.

More: Exercises to Increase Your Running Speed

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