The Importance of Cross-Training
By Amy Elliott, MSPT
While this winter has been mild compared with many a Chicago winter, you may still find yourself anxiously awaiting the arrival of spring, and with it, the opportunity to lace up the ole running shoes and hit the pavement. As you’re racking up race registrations and scoping out training schedules, I’d encourage you to consider incorporating some cross-training as a means to not only avoid injuries that could keep you sidelined during our precious few warm months, but also help improve your chances of setting that personal best before the snow flies once more.
What is Cross-Training?
Great question! When in reference to running, it’s the use of other forms of exercise or fitness related activities to supplement the many miles of pavement pounding in order to bolster performance and avoid injury. While most runners are aware of non-impact alternative endurance activities such as cycling and swimming, many consider them as a viable training option only when faced with no other alternative, typically due to injury, and not as a valuable training tool as they really should be. Strength or resistance training, stretching, and flexibility activities such as yoga are not even on the radar for most runners, but are also invaluable cross training activities.
What are the benefits of Cross-Training?
They’re numerous! Beginning with perhaps the most obvious, cross training is a crucial tool in preventing injury. Data suggests that up to 79% of runners are injured annually! Over 60% of those injuries involve the knee and/or IT band and can be attributed to weakness in the stabilizing muscles of the pelvis and hips. The hip abductors (the lateral, or outside, gluteal muscles) play a major role in keeping our pelvis level when one of our feet is not in contact with the ground (as is the case during the swing phase of running gait). Weakness in the abductors results in a tipping of the pelvis towards the unsupported side, causing undo stress and strain on the hip and knee joints when the foot lands. Targeted strength training is required to strengthen these muscles. Shin splints, progressing to fracture in upwards of 10% of runners, are a direct result of the repetitive, pounding nature of running. Replacing just one or two weekly recovery runs with light, non-impact activities such as cycling or swimming can significantly reduce the amount of repetitive impact that your lower extremities are subjected to, thereby reducing your risk of injury.
If you do fall prey to injury, cross-training can help you to get back into the action more quickly and reduce your risk of re-injury (it’s estimated that 50% of all running injuries are re-injury) by addressing the root cause of the problem through strength training or flexibility activities. Cross-training will also help to maintain your aerobic fitness while you’re on the road to recovery.
Beyond helping to starve off injury, cross-training can also improve your aerobic fitness, your power and your efficiency, all of which contribute to faster marks on race day. Because they alleviate the stress on your joints, aerobic activities, such as swimming and cycling, can typically be tolerated for longer periods of time without risk of injury and thereby allow you a more extensive opportunity to work on your cardiovascular fitness. Strength training, especially jumping drills and plyometric activities (see image), will allow you to generate more power with your legs. More power during push off translates into greater stride length, which ultimately results in faster times. Flexibility work and stretching play an important role in preventing injury, but also help to decrease internal resistance to movement, allowing your body to work more efficiently and make you (you guessed it) faster!
So jump in the pool, hop on your bike, hit up the gym for some strength training and join a yoga class! Your body and your race times will appreciate your efforts. If you are at a complete and utter loss as to how to appropriately strength train or where your particular imbalances lie, we can help! If you find yourself in the unfortunate position of battling with an injury, we can help with that too!