Ideal Cross-Training Activities
The following are cross-training activities ideally suited to enhance your running performance. They are recommended because they are all north-south exercises, which place little side-to-side lateral pressures on your body, especially your leg joints, muscles, and connective tissue. Although these cross-training activities offer good cardiovascular workouts, they also give the legs a heavy-duty workout and therefore should not be done on scheduled leg rest days.
Cycling exercises some of the same muscle groups as running, such as the quadriceps and shins, both of which don't develop as rapidly from workouts as the calf muscles and hamstrings. Cycling also strengthens the connective tissue of the knee, hip, and ankle regions, thus reducing the risk of injury. After a stressful run, cycling can loosen fatigued leg muscles.
There are three types of biking to try: road riding; mountain biking; and stationary cycling. Taking place on the road, road biking allows you to travel long distances with speed. Mountain bikes are two-wheel, all-terrain vehicles that can be ridden almost anywhere. Although mountain biking is a lot of fun and challenging, its jarring nature makes falls risky. Road and stationary cycling are better alternatives.
With stationary cycling, you can workout indoors year-round regardless of inclement weather. Stationary cycling offers the additional benefit of being able to safely listen to music or read while working out.
Remember these cycling tips: First, always maintain control when riding your bike. To slow down or stop, feather the brakes, alternating between squeezing and releasing them. Also, be aware of cars. Don't assume that drivers see you. When you ride past parked cars, watch for car doors opening suddenly. Observe traffic signals and signs, and use hand signals to indicate turns or stops.
A few things to keep in mind: Refrain from cycling on a scheduled rest day. Since it's much more difficult to run after cycling, run prior to heading out on your bike. Spin easily, as opposed to grinding big gears. Be sure that your seat height and pedals are properly positioned. Finally, always wear a helmet, and leave the iPod at home!
For the compulsive athlete, swimming is one of the best cross-training activities to add to your running regimen. Swimming gives tired leg muscles a breather while providing an excellent upper body workout. Additionally, water has a therapeutic effect on all muscle groups. Although gentle kicking alleviates some muscle soreness and fatigue, avoid using the kickboard for hard kick sets on your running rest day.
If you swim for the aerobic benefit, do not be concerned that your heart rate does not get as high as during other activities. The loss of gravitational force, the horizontal position, and the cooling effect of the water temperature all contribute toward keeping your heart rate low.
A low heart rate does not mean that your aerobic efforts are in vain. Remember, aerobic exercise is about oxygen utilization, and the heart rate mirrors what is happening on an oxygen level. But in this case, the mirror gives a distorted picture of what's really going on. Even though swimming conditions yield relatively lower heart rate numbers, your body is still processing oxygen, and that's what counts. A general rule is that the swimming heart rate is typically 10–20 beats per minute less than that for dry land activities.
Another type of water cross-training activity is deep water running. In deep water running, you are suspended vertically in a pool by wearing a flotation belt around your waist or torso. Although your feet don't touch the bottom of the pool, you then simulate running.
This cross-training activity is just what the doctor ordered for the rehabilitation of many running injuries. Because there is no shock from footstrike, deep water running is a perfect alternative to a midweek easy day run. The resistance of the water gives you all the benefits of running but none of the shock of footstrike associated with road running. Even though it is possible to run in the water without floatation aids, find a pool that offers these devices (such as vests or belts) for a workout at once easier on your upper body yet more specific in targeting your leg muscles.
One popular cross-training machine is the egrometer, or rowing machine. As scullers have known for centuries, rowing is a terrific all-body exercise, strengthening your back, buttocks, and legs and developing your shoulders and arms.
Rowing involves a two-stroke movement referred to as the drive and the recovery, which together produce a smooth and continuous action. It's important to follow good form on a rowing machine, so make sure you ask your health club to show you how to use it properly. This is another highly beneficial activity to do on a rest day. It strengthens the hips, buttocks, and upper body while sparing the legs from heavy pounding.
In addition to rowing machines, you can also try the Nordic Track and other ski-simulator machines. Designed to simulate cross-country skiing, these machines, when used properly, are highly effective in building aerobic conditioning, muscular strength, and endurance. In short, they provide an excellent workout for runners. The dual action movement of both upper and lower body challenges your ability to coordinate two different movements.
One of the most popular machines in the gym these days is the elliptical trainer. Offering a total-body cardiovascular workout, its elliptical motion combines the effects of classic cross-country skiing, stair climbing, and walking without any pounding of the joints. You can program the elliptical trainer to operate in a forward, backward, or combination of motions, providing a low-impact workout for all the major muscles in the legs.
The backward motion emphasizes the gluteal muscles (buttocks). You can achieve a good upper body workout by using the two poles located on either side of the machine in conjunction with leg motion. Not only is an elliptical training machine versatile, it is fun to use. You can program it to maintain you at your strongest yet safest capacity, you can monitor your heart rate, and you can even customize your workout.
The climbing wall is another piece of equipment that more and more gyms, community centers, and schools are providing. Climbing provides an excellent total-body workout and is mentally and physically challenging, combining balance with footwork and technique. Gyms with indoor climbing walls have the ropes and equipment you need on hand, so you don't have to invest in them. Although it doesn't give a high-intensity cardiovascular workout, it's another way to stretch your muscles while challenging yourself — and can be very entertaining.
That's right, good old walking is a wonderful way to cross-train. It's an underrated activity with enhanced therapeutic benefits following a long run or speed work. Although walking is not a substitute for an easy running day, a relaxed 2–3 mile stroll is a good way to loosen up your legs the day before a big race. And depending on the type of injury, speed walking is an invaluable rehabilitation activity for maintaining cardiovascular fitness.