Whether you are a newbie or a seasoned marathoner, not all your physical activity has to be running – here are some of the best reasons for including other types of exercise in your regime and tips on how to make your cross-training count.
OK, so nothing's going to make you a better runner than running itself is! But perhaps you are already doing as much running as you can handle without risking injury or exhaustion. If that's the case, adding a cross-training activity is a roundabout way of increasing your training ‘load'. One study, published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise, found that when runners added bike interval training to their usual routine they improved their 5km times by an average of 30 seconds within 6 weeks.
Lowers injury risk
While running is a fantastic form of exercise, it moves the body in only one direction (forwards!), relies mostly on the lower body muscles and repeats the same action over and over. Activities that help to balance out your regime – using different directions, ranges of motion and muscle groups – will help you reduce the risk of injury.
Gives joints a break
Running is an impactful activity that puts forces equal to 2-3 times your body weight through the joints on every stride. But you can increase or maintain your overall training volume by adding or substituting 1-2 weekly sessions of a low-impact cardio activity, such as swimming, cycling or the elliptical trainer or step machine. This gives your joints a break without compromising your fitness gains.
Shifts your focus
It's great to have a goal to work towards, but sometimes training can start to feel dull and repetitive. Cross-training offers a mental break from running and allows you to inject some fun and variety into your routine, without letting fitness slide. Zumba, anyone?
While you might think that lying on the sofa is the best way to recover from running, some research suggests that easy exercise can hasten the recovery process better than doing nothing. Researchers believe that gentle movement boosts circulation and helps to flush the waste products that result from heavy exercise out of your muscles, preparing you for your next workout. But make sure recovery workouts are neither too long nor too hard.
Maintains fitness during injury
If you have a niggle or injury that prevents you running, cross-training can help you maintain your fitness while the problem is resolved. The key is finding an activity that doesn't aggravate the injury. One of the most popular among athletes is aqua jogging – literally ‘running in the water' with a flotation belt around the hips to keep you upright. It's the most specific alternative to running but with zero stress on the joints.
Make it count!
- Know what the purpose of your cross training is so that you can choose the right activity, duration and intensity. If, for example, if you are swimming for recovery then make sure you don't swim at top speed for 60 minutes, which will add to your fatigue rather than aid your recovery!
- When you are cross-training for fitness, structure your session as you would a run with a warm-up, a main activity (for example, interval or tempo training) and a cooldown.
- Ensure some of your cross-training is of the ‘balancing out your regime' variety. Activities such as weight training, circuits, yoga and Pilates fit into this category because they focus on flexibility, mobility and strength.
- Factor cross-training in when you are planning your running programme, so you don't unwittingly end up overtraining or missing out on rest days.