How to become a faster runner through cross training: part 1

Part 1: Cross Training for the Runner…who doesn’t know how to cross train

Ugh -we have all been there. A niggle, a long term injury...whatever it is but we are destined for a bout of cross training.  And chances are, we aren't too pumped about it either.

Why do runners loath cross training?  I don’t know, but I do know that I was firmly in the I-hate-cross-training camp for too many years.  I think it is a combination of factors that result in this intensity of hate for something that is really not so bad. Over my twenty years as a runner, I have had more experience cross training than I care to count – six injuries, one pregnancy and a transition to being a multi-sport athlete has required that I sweat out hours aqua-jogging, biking, swimming, using the elliptical, etc.  I would like to share with you some of my insights into cross training and hope it helps you to become a better runner-athlete too; especially now that I am firmly in the camp that cross training can help you as an athlete, not just as a runner. 

I believe that there are three main barriers to cross training that prevent runners from using and benefiting from it: attitude, implementation and belief in its purpose to make you a stronger runner.  Kind of a chicken and an egg situation…

Firstly, in order to actually benefit from cross training you need to lose the “I hate cross training” attitude and embrace it as training rather than simply cross training. For me, the biggest revelation and gains I made was when I actually changed my focus from cross training for running to training for endurance sports.  Oddly, just dropping the adverb “cross” helped me see the situation in new light. I suddenly considered my “cross training” activities to be triathlon training activities by adding swimming and biking to the mix – and finding purpose within those activities.

Even if running was still my primary focus, I considered that training for another endurance sport had to benefit me as a runner.  So rather than mindlessly and pathetically strapping on an aqua-jogging belt, I joined master’s swimming where there was purpose, structure and expectation to the workout.  Similarly, instead of switching a 40 minute easy run for a 40 minute easy ride on the stationary bike, I learned how to actually do a bike workout, which made them much more palatable and beneficial. Suddenly an hour flew by instead of dragged by the seconds. By the way: if you are serious about getting cycling - fit or being addicted to indoor cycling, then the online subscription-based "simulated" ride experience of Zwift is unbeatable. Especially paired with a WAHOO KICKR (which automatically changes the resistance for up and down hills, etc).  

Secondly, I learned late in my running life that 1 minute of running cannot simply be substituted for 1 minute of other activity.  I used to take a 45 minute run from my schedule and do 45 minutes of a cross training activity (and hate every minute of it!).  Due to the load and intensity of running (even at easy pace), the equivalency is not on par and you will not get the same fitness gains. 

As a rule of thumb, I generally do 1.5 to 2 times the number of minutes of cross training for every 1 minute of running.  So a 30 minutes easy run should be 1 hour of elliptical, swimming, or riding the bike trainer.  An hour of outdoor biking…well…that’s just the warm-up!!!

The point is, cross training is an opportunity to build the aerobic system with less load on the legs, and because of the help from gravity, you need to do more volume (time) than you would for running to get a similar stimulus.  We roughly use the follow equivalency in our home for cross training - this is just based on our "gut" and not peer-reviewed research.  It does also depend on your competency with the sport because for some people who can hardly swim 20 min of swimming is like 1 hour of running!

Running 1:1

Swimming 0.75:1 (i.e. 45 min of swimming for 1 hour of running)

Elliptical 1.5: 1 (i.e. 1.5 hours of elliptical for 1 hour of running)

Biking Indoors 1.5:1 (ie 1.5 hours of biking for 1 hour of running)

Biking Outdoors 2:1 (i.e. 2 hours of biking for 1 hour of running)

Having structure, expectation and goals to my cross training revolutionized me as an athlete and runner.  I wish I could back in time to months and years of injuries when I was half-heartedly cross training and frankly, wasting my time. Now that I am a triathlete I LOVE mixing things up on the bike and in the pool! It just took me 20 years to get to this point! 

Stay tuned for more follow up on cross training and running.

PS: this has been re-posted from a few years ago when I originally wrote it.  

Biking indoors is effective, safe and can be entertaining - just plug something on the screen and go!

Biking indoors is effective, safe and can be entertaining - just plug something on the screen and go!