Cross-training for runners

Get race-ready with more strength training and less running. This minimalist running plan targets the glutes, legs and core for improved speed and overall strength

Cross-training for runners

Source: Image: Thinkstock

I adore running for its efficiency: it’s hard work that gets your heart pumping quickly, it can be done almost anywhere with minimal equipment, and there’s no commuting time involved. If you leave your house for half an hour, you’ve gone for a half-hour run ‘ the perfect workout program for busy people.

But running is hard on the body. Even if humans really were born to run, as some say, in our society we haven’t exactly been raised for it. Running-related injuries are common ‘ think plantar fasciitis, IT band syndrome, shin splints and runner’s knee ‘ and take many of us to the sidelines.

For me, it was the Achilles tendons. I’d had to take three months off after tearing my knee in a dogsledding accident (as ridiculous as it sounds), and in coming back to running, I went too hard too soon (a common refrain) and started feeling pain and a strange catching sensation in the backs of my heels. I wondered if I’d ever be able to run races again.
But then my physiotherapist told me about studies on the use of strength training to improve running performance: it seems that following targeted muscle-building programs ‘ glutes, legs and core, above all ‘ with your training program can make you run faster. Cross-training isn’t a new concept, but I wondered: how far could I take it? Can I design a 10K training program (I’m signed up for the Sporting Life 10K in Toronto in May) with as little running as possible?

Why do runners get injured?

"One of the biggest things I see with runners is their programs are void of any strength training, which can lead to future problems with joints and common injuries," says Toronto personal trainer Brent Bishop, author of The Think Factor. Problems can be caused by being out of balance ‘ say, if your quadriceps are significantly stronger than your hamstrings ‘ or by repetitive motions caused by weakness that are repeated over time, such as knees moving to one side rather than tracking straight up and down.

In addition, the types of people who are attracted to running are often the types of people who have a habit of pushing through pain ‘ and pain is the body’s signal to slow down, not to keep going. "With running, you shouldn’t continue going through pain," Bishop says. "There’s going to be some point where you’ll break down."

The best cross-training for runners

"A big part of the training is to stabilize your joints," says Bishop. This means strengthening legs and glutes so that they hold joints steady as you run. He recommends single-leg strength training, such as single-leg squats, as a functional means to improve stability. "This exercise will get your neurological system used to engaging that muscle," he says. The gluteus medius, he adds, is a pelvic stability muscle important for preventing injury. "If you have strong glutes you can counteract the tendency of the pelvis to swing." Core training is also "very important" for stability, he notes.

When you design your workouts, ideally with a qualified trainer, you can build in cardio drills as well as strength training, and focus on quality over quantity with the running, Bishop says. "You can do a lot of great running drills that are low volume," he says. "Injuries come up with high volume and high volume too fast." Plan an hour-long session that’s mainly strength and stability along with some intense cardio drills, he says, and you can trail cardio at a high level without damaging the joints.

Even beyond strength training, cross-training can help you become a better runner. Spinning or other endurance classes, for instance, "give the joints and certain body parts a break" while still helping your cardio and ‘ let’s face it ‘ keeping you healthy, too.

Prevent and treat injury

Another important factor is listening to your body and knowing when tight spots need some TLC. "Once you feel pain, you should try to address it with stretching," Bishop says ‘ for instance, one side might be tighter than the other, causing an imbalance. "Take a couple of days off and address the issue," he adds.

Also make sure to build a self-massage program into your routine (that’s assuming you can’t find room in your budget for a daily sports massage). Buy a foam roller from your local running shop and ask them to demo some moves, or work on tight spots with a lacrosse ball, tennis ball or Acuball. Not only does this release tension and help the body stay balanced, it "helps build tissue tolerance," says Bishop, "which increases tissues’ ability to tolerate activities." Translation? Along with better range of motion, you’re making your muscles tougher ‘ figuratively, that is.

So how much should I run?

At least three times a week is the ideal, Bishop says. One workout should be focused on increasing distance while maintaining an easy pace. One day is a "tempo" workout, meaning you’re practising running at "race pace" ‘ this isn’t sprinting, but rather a faster pace you can maintain steadily, say for five minutes at a time with a five-minute walk or slow run break in-between. And the third day is focused on interval training, such as running up and down a hill. Beginners should power-walk or slowly jog up the hill, while more advanced runners can crank up the speed.

It’s also important to train for the race you’re going to be running. The Sporting Life 10K, for instance, is mainly downhill, making it a fast race but also a hard one on the joints. Bishop recommended I build downhill runs into my training program to get my body accustomed to the impact. If your goal race involves more rolling hills, then you’ll want to focus more on that style of running.

As for distance, with only five weeks to go before my 10K and a maximum five km under my belt (since last summer, that is), I asked Bishop if I was being realistic for this race. The answer? I’m actually right on track.

"Ultimately, if you can run half the distance and focus on the things I’ve been mentioning, you can take the impact," he says, cautioning that newer runners especially need to get their bodies used to the impact on pavement, and will want to progress up to the distance slowly. "I’ve seen many people who get up to 5K and they’re ready to go for 10."

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