Cross-Training & Strength Training for Runners
Many runners wonder about cross training and strength training. “Will cross-training and strength training make me a faster runner?” is of course the bottom-line question. The answer to that is a qualified no. The principle of specificity of training is the key. Researchers as well as Olympic level coaches have found that, what you train is what you compete.
A well trained runner does not make a good cyclist. A well trained swimmer does not make a good cyclist. A well trained cyclist likewise does not make a good swimmer or runner. All of these individuals could be in excellent shape, and possess low body fat, pipes for arteries and veins, lungs that suck up air like a vacuum cleaner. However, neuro-muscularly they have been trained to do their specific events. Muscles and nerve fibers have been trained to contract and fire specific to making them fast in their own sports.
So, in this way, cross training will not make you a better runner. If you want to be a faster runner, run fast. It is what you are doing with the miles you run, not necessarily how many miles you run that matters.
Now, notice that I did mention that up front that it is a qualified “no”. Here is that qualification. In the following circumstances it may be a wise move to include some cross-training in your program.
* If you are a novice runner looking to break into running gradually;
Mileage itself (not speed of running) is the number one correlation to injuries. Starting running programs can be traumatic to your body if you haven’t run much before. In this case you can build your general strength and slow you down from increasing mileage too fast too soon.
* If you are in need of general strength;
When we do not have the general body strength our running form suffers. As well, it may subject us to higher incidents of injuries. Bulk strength (muscles) is not the goal. However, you need the ability to hold your upper body relatively still and your arms and legs need to be able to work in sync. That requires a certain amount of muscle power.
* If you have a history of or are recovering from injuries;
For someone who already suffers from injuries (history or currently) certain kinds of cross training may assist in recovery, strengthening and injury prevention through promoting muscle balance. By getting away from the pounding you may lengthen your running career. And if your cross-training activity is more symmetrical then it will promote more balanced muscle development. (By the way, no comments about runners being un-balanced! We already know that.)
The final question to answer: What kind of cross-training should I do? The answer may not be too surprising. If you can do an activity which mimics running motion without the pounding then do it. (Remember – specificity of training.) Aqua-jogging in deep water is a perfect adjunct activity. In fact, research supports this and indicates that it can maintain conditioning quite well. Not much has been written about this water running improving conditioning per se. But, logic would say it just may do that especially with a more novice runner. Unfortunately, we also know that a more experienced runner in good running shape will not improve running this way (but may maintain conditioning for awhile during injury down-times). The other bonus with aqua jogging is that it takes all the pounding off your body parts. A key to using this approach is to use very high intensity intervals in your aqua-running program. So, aqua-jogging is really aqua-running and better yet aqua-sprinting!
For general body strength, it is preferred to do what are called “core exercises” and better yet, integrate them into running workouts. Some of you are intimately aware of those wonderful workouts. Weight training per se is not advisable for runners. You do not need that much muscle. (Take a look at the Kenyan and Ethiopian runners and tell me how many weight training sessions they have been doing lately.)
Hill running is also a way to build running-specific strength. A key error in running hills is doing passive hill training. i.e. going for a run on a hilly course. Active hill training requires hard uphill efforts with reasonable recovery periods in order to repeat it. Two kinds of hill training are optimal. Integrate a steep slope as well as a longer gradual slope for two different workouts. These are run hard i.e. 5k pace or faster.
All of this is not to say that cycling or swimming or weight training or an elliptical trainer, etc. are bad for you. It all depends on your goals. But, if you want to get good at an activity, the results are in – do the activity and do it fast.