Newcomers to our sport often find that their enthusiasm for ultrarunning knows no bounds. They happily contemplate years of nothing but running. They’re spinning in a positive feedback loop like a hamster in an exercise wheel. Train, train, train. Run, run, run. Race, race, race. They might be well-advised, however, to hold their horses just a bit.
A lot of ultrarunners have found that mixing in some cross-training has helped them stay sharp as runners or even helped them stick with running when others became burned out on the sport and drifted back to the couch. Cross-training is the pursuit of some kind of exercise routine other than running, such as swimming, cycling, or weight-lifting, and there are many reasons why ultrarunners might want to do just that.
Running engages a specific muscle group in a specific way over and over again so that a runner becomes extremely efficient at running but at the same time can develop imbalances or push the running-related muscle groups into over-use injuries. Quads can become so strong in relation to hamstrings that the hamstrings are set up for pulls and tears. Upper body muscles can become neglected to the point that proper running form suffers. Core muscles can weaken, especially as runners grow older, to the point that problems crop up in the hip area as the well-developed lower body muscles place too much of a strain on mid-body muscles and connective tissue.
Cross-training can address these problems by targeting certain muscle groups with strengthening exercises and by reducing the amount of time that the running-related muscles are exclusively stressed during training. Weight-lifting can be used to selectively strengthen particular muscles, such as the hamstrings, or to maintain upper body strength in general. Swimming works muscles from head to toe but is very effective at strengthening arms, shoulders, and chest muscles. Mountain biking is a tremendous workout for the legs but also delivers a surprisingly good workout to the arms and shoulders, especially when riding a more technical course. Targeted calisthenics can be used to maintain core strength, a particularly important goal for runners as they age and experience a natural decline in this area.
Are there other reasons for cross-training? Absolutely. Nothing is more frustrating to a runner than an injury that keeps them sidelined for a long period of time. The temptation to “run through” the injury or jump back into a normal routine too quickly as the runner feels their hard-won conditioning slip away is enormous. Cross-training offers a way to maintain a given fitness level while giving an injury time to heal properly. Swimming and cycling both deliver excellent aerobic training and share the added benefit of being non-load-bearing activities. It is usually possible to engage in a full cardiovascular workout without unduly stressing the injured area, since all the severe pounding and stress to the feet, knees and hips that running involves is avoided. A running-related injury can often be rested and rehabilitated while pursuing a whole course of upper body exercises. It’s possible to return from an injury with enhanced overall body strength and the ability to hold better form in the late stages of a race.
Another excellent reason to develop a fresh set of skills in an activity other than running is to have an alternative should running become stale, repetitive or less compelling. Many runners have found that chasing high mileage week in and week out becomes burdensome and even counterproductive. Just as you should vary your running routine to avoid getting bored by the same old routes, you can switch to a whole new discipline from time to time to keep yourself engaged and challenged. Training for a triathlon, for example, can ramp up your overall fitness level while getting you out among a whole new group of competitors and potential friends. If you take a yearly break from running, you can cross-train during the break and return to running refreshed and with your fitness level intact.
Whatever cross-training activity you choose, be it swimming, cycling, Pilates, weight-lifting, calisthenics, skiing or stair-climbing, be sure to learn safe and effective practices for that discipline. Just because this activity may be your secondary interest, doesn’t mean you should slight learning how to do it well. If you jump on a mountain bike, you should choose good equipment that has been properly set up for you, and you should have the appropriate helmet, clothing, gloves, lights if you’re riding at night – as if riding was your number one pursuit. Runners who have never had formal swim training find that taking some instruction in correct technique vastly improves their swimming experience. Weight-lifting too should be practiced with some care. Using proper form while lifting makes for a much more efficient and effective workout than if the lifting is done in a sloppy manner.
The fact remains, however, that running is the best training for running, and it’s possible to run happily for a very long time before there is ever a need to cross-train. But cross-training is always there as an option, and you might be surprised at how working hard at some other sport can actually wind up enhancing your running experience. You might also discover that shredding a gnarly trail on a mountain bike in the middle of the night at some 24-hour endurance event has its own unique charms.