Cross-train to become a better runner

Switching up your sport can help you build strength and prevent injury

We don’t need to tell you that running is hands-down awesome. You’re here, so you already know that. But running shouldn’t be the only way you work out, even if it is the love of your active life. You need to cross-train — as in, intentionally mix in other forms of exercise, specifically cardio, strength training and active recovery — to run your strongest, fastest and fiercest.

3 Reasons Cross-Training Is Boss Training

1. It can make you fitter

“Running will make you a better runner, but it isn’t going to make you a better athlete,” says Nike senior director of global running Chris Bennett, aka Coach Bennett. Though it gets you moving, it gets you moving in only one plane of motion (sagittal, or front and back) and with one movement pattern (gait), and it’s easy to get stuck in one energy system (aerobic). The right cross-training approach, on the other hand, gets you moving in all three planes of motion (sagittal, frontal and transverse) and through all movement patterns (push, pull, squat, lunge, hinge, and so on). And it helps you develop all three of your body’s energy systems (they span the low- to high-intensity spectrum), which makes you a stronger and more well-rounded athlete, he says.

2. It can boost your motivation

As we said earlier, running is awesome…until it’s not. Sometimes you just need to spice it up, and changing your route doesn’t always cut it. But changing up your weekly workouts can. And regardless of intensity, simply doing something different may give certain muscle groups and your mind a much-needed break, says Coach Bennett. This approach to training can ensure your love for the sport runs just as strong as you do.

3. It can reduce your risk of injury

Avoiding injuries may not be the sexiest benefit of cross-training, but it’s the key to becoming a regular runner. That’s because while your cardiorespiratory system can get into shape relatively quickly, it takes longer for your muscles, tendons and ligaments to get strong enough to withstand a lot of pavement pounding, explains Ian Klein, a specialist in exercise physiology, cross-training and injury prevention at Ohio University. And because cross-training can get you moving laterally, jumping, stopping and going, it teaches your body to move fully IRL, effectively making you an athlete who’s less likely to get hurt on or off the pavement, explains Coach Bennett.

Exactly how often you should cross-train varies from person to person, and it’s “less a question of how often and more a question of how much,” says Coach Bennett. You could commit to at least five to 10 minutes of cross-training per day (a quick bout of single-leg deadlifts or even just balancing on one leg counts), or as many longer sessions (lasting 20 to 60 minutes) as you need to feel better physically and mentally, he says.

Regardless of how much time you spend doing them, these are the top three cross-training activities to start incorporating today.

1. Low-impact cardio

Cycling, swimming, rowing, hiking — all of these low-impact forms of cardio let you bypass the brute force of running while training your muscles to go longer and push harder, says Jason Fitzgerald, a USA Track & Field-certified coach and the creator of the coaching program Strength Running. These activities still train your aerobic system, so they can improve your ability to take in and use oxygen (which will pay off during your runs) without the extra stress your soft tissue (muscles, tendons, etc.) would take on from actually running, he says.

For injury-prone runners — those who’ve suffered from shin splints or annoying knee or ankle ache — swapping some easy runs with cardio cross-training can give your legs a break from the impact and help you stay healthy, adds Fitzgerald. There’s no magic running-to-low-impact-cardio ratio, but as long as the balance makes your runs feel easier, not harder, and you’re not nursing aches and pains, you’re doing it right, says Coach Bennett.

2. Strength training

Lifting weights, CrossFit, plyometrics (explosive jumping exercises like squat jumps and jump-switch lunges), and even basic bodyweight strength training (air squats and push-ups) all build up your muscular strength and endurance. This makes not only everyday life (schlepping an overpacked weekend bag, carrying groceries, picking up your child or dog) easier, but also your runs. That’s because a body with stronger muscles has more resistance against fatigue, says certified strength and conditioning coach Janet Hamilton, the owner of the Atlanta-based coaching company Running Strong. In other words, you can go harder for longer because your joints are better equipped to handle the force running throws on them mile after mile.

“You could be running regularly so that you’re a Day 30 runner, but if you’re not strength training, you’re like a Day 1 athlete, because you’re only getting better on a cardio level,” says Coach Bennett. “The wider that gap grows — as in, you keep pushing your runs without working on strength — the sooner you’ll hit a progress wall and risk getting hurt.” The American Heart Association and most experts recommend at least two dedicated strength workouts per week, but as long as you’re doing shorter workouts (lasting, say, 20 minutes or less) and not blasting the same muscle groups back to back, you could do more, says Coach Bennett.

3. Active recovery

Pick an activity you like, then tone it down to a 3 or so on a 1-to-10 scale of perceived effort — that’s active recovery. It could be an easy bike ride, a chill hike, a long walk, an easy or moderate yoga or Pilates class — anything that doesn’t make your muscles quiver or you break a real sweat, or cause you to mentally curse what you’re doing.

Active recovery, particularly a low-key bike ride or walk, can help promote your bounce-back after a hard run more than just resting does, suggests research from Western Colorado University. That could be because this type of movement increases blood flow to your muscles, helping them repair themselves more effectively, found a separate study published in the Journal of Sports Sciences. Active recovery has also been shown to lower your heart rate during other sports and make it feel like you’re working less hard, according to research published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, which means you could do more on your next run with less perceived effort.

To figure out how often to shoot for active recovery and which type to do, try Coach Bennett’s tip: “Ask yourself, ‘Will I feel better or worse for doing this?’” Active recovery — and all cross-training — isn’t just about the physical benefits for your runs, he says.

“Cross-training is really about the emotional or spiritual jump you get that helps you for your next run,” he says. “Did it give you some confidence or some peace for your run? That’s what matters most.”

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