Since that is all I’ve been doing lately, let’s talk about the horrible thing runners have to do called cross training. As I have been reading about cross training the past couple of days, there are several things that really annoy me. Before we get into that, let me briefly tell you where I’m coming from in my cross training experience. If you don’t want to read it, skip the next couple paragraphs till you get to problems with cross training ideas.

My first experience with long term cross training was my freshman year in HS. I ran through a stress fracture in Cross Country and eventually had to take about 6 weeks off. During this time, the routine was swim workout in the morning and bike workout in the afternoon. Why? Because those were the two methods of cross training we had available at school. Following this 6-8 week (don’t recall exactly) layoff, and 1 week of easy running, I ran a mile time trial and PR’d running in the low 4:40s. I went on to run 4:22 during track season, but at that time it was a significant 1600 pr (the year before I’d run 5:10).

For the next 2 years I got to experience cross training off and on unfortunately through a couple injuries. The most significant being achilles tendonitis which put me in the pool/bike combo for another long period. It was a little tougher coming back from that one as I came back mid cross country season, but off of maybe 6 weeks of running, I made it back to place in the 20s at the state meet, so it was pretty successful.

One of the biggest early cross training influences was from my friend and often cross training buddy Nolan. He was the most injury prone runner I’ve ever known. He went 4 years of CC and track in HS and never made it through an entire season without having some injury. By his senior year our HS coach had him do a modified training program where he did most of his easy and aerobic stuff in the pool or on the bike and then stepped out on the track to do speed work to get him ready for an 800. He ended up running 1:58 I believe so it worked rather well.

Because of the aforementioned experience and a belief that not everything we do in distance training is spot on, I’ve read/been influenced by the training systems used in other sports, most notably swimming, but also cycling, skating, skiing, and rowing. Researching these other sports gives me a decent, but not great, grasp on the training they use.

Lastly, the most recent cross training experience is from someone I coach. He’s another injury prone athlete, so we decided to follow the pattern of my old friend Nolan and of Zap Fitness runner Brendan O’Keefe and have him train by running 4 days a week and cross training the others. We are only a little bit into the experiment, but so far the results are very promosing. He’s already running thresholds faster than he was in CC when he was going the traditional running route and isn’t suffering any setbacks like he has so many times before.

Problems with Common Cross Training Ideas

1. How much do you have to cross train?
This is probably the most often asked and debated question. If you go on the running sites like letsrun or even read the popular literature like Scott Douglass’ chapter in Run Strong, then you would get the idea that you have to spend even more time than you would if you were running because there is no impact. People commonly say that a mile biked is .3 of a running mile or similar conversions.

First off, there are no conversions. Forget about it. Secondly, in my opinion, these people are dead wrong. What happens is they read about how much training professional cyclists or swimmers do. They then combine this notion with the fact that these are no or low impact exercises and reason that since there is low impact you can do more of it. The reasoning is flawed for a couple reasons. First off, we, as runners, aren’t training to be swimmers or bikers. We are doing that activity to maintain our running fitness and make it easier to come back. The demands are much different. For example, most cycling events are much longer in duration than the running events we are training for.

Secondly, most of us do not use biking, swimming, or an elliptical regularly. This is important because that means these activities are new stimulus to us. If you get on a bike for the first time in a long time and you cycle for 3 hours, what is going to happen to your body? Nothing is used to that activity, your muscles aren’t going to be used to that and you’ll have more microtears than usual and thus be more sore. It will take longer to repair the muscle too, so the soreness will persist and fatigue will come faster for a couple of days. It’s like the old chart you see in every training book, the curve where you push yourself below the line during a workout and then come back up during the recovery.

Think back to those training books you’ve read and remember how they say that you quickly respond to a new stimulus and then the improvements tend to level off. Normally the paragraph on this is accompanied by a picture of a graph showing some variable that increases rapidly at first then slowly levels off and eventually flattens out. That is what happens with cross training too. You will respond to even relatively moderate loads at first (not low loads because your fitness from running has some carry over effect).

Ignoring all of the science, the best way to think about why it is rediculous is use common sense. Go try and bike for several hours every day. By the 3rd or so day your ass will be so sore it is not even funny. Your legs will feel like burning even at low intensities and HR’s. How do I know this? I’ve tried it. It happens. Perhaps more convinving, is the idea that if Lance Armstrong during his prime got hurt so he couldn’t bike for 5 weeks and could only run. Do you think he’d do the equivalent of his cycling training running? No, would he even do close to it? No. Would you have him run 100mpw? No. Ignoring the impact of running, you still wouldn’t. He’d be fried by 100mpw and workouts that first week even if the impact wasn’t a problem.

So what does this all mean? The BEST rule of thumb is to take whatever running mileage you were doing and do that amount (time wise) cross training the first bit. So if you run an hour a day, do an hour of cross training a day. Then you can increase that amount as you grow accustomed to it. Generally I recommend, the first week being the amount of CURRENT time you would be running. The second week I recommend you increase the total time, to the maximum amount of time you spend running (i.e. the highest mileage week). Then the third week, if you feel good, you can increase it a couple “miles” above that.

But that sounds like you’re telling me to work less than the “experts” say? That’s correct. I don’t normally say that, so enjoy it while it lasts, but it’s the truth. You don’t have to accept it. But from my own experience listed above I think it is the way to go.

Remember, we are training for running, not cycling, not aquajogging, running. We don’t care about cycling specific adaptations. If you could run 3 hours without the pounding would you in training for a 3k? No, why bike that long? In a lot of cases, I don’t want some of the negative consequences of cycling that much that might hurt my running if I come back.

Lastly, In this whole post, I’m referring to athletes who are out for a relatively short to medium period of time. So anywhere from maybe a week to 12 weeks. If you are out for 6months or so, things are slightly different because you have to be more in tune with the negatives of some cross training methods (i.e. getting too big quads for running b/c of cycling).

That’s enough for now, I might look at other specifics later.

Cross Training Log:

AM-45min bike-15mi- 30min forward(avg-140, generally in 145 range), 15min backward(avg-136)

PM- Elliptical-65min-
2mi w/up(15min-HR120),
5mi LT(20:52-avg171-steady at 175, max 184(level 3 resistance), 3E(down to 132),
1mi (lvl 6, avg-178, up to 191), 3E(down to 132), 2min hard (level 8- up to 188), 1E(down to 158), 1min hard (lvl 10 for 30sec, lvl 12 30sec- up to 188), 1E(down to 162), 30sec as fast as machine would go (25+mph, lvl1- up to 185), 14min c/d (down to 120)

70min Elliptical- avg HR-130avg (max 152 (10min backwards on machine, 5min going backwards)

90min Bike- 90min total-75min-avg speed 35ish kmh, HR mostly in mid 150’s(avg 152-max 162), last 15min backwards

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    1. Stephen Agar on December 25, 2016 at 10:01 am

      Very Helpful. Due to a persistent Achilles issue, I am about to try a combination of cross training and running.

    2. Brent on October 3, 2017 at 5:44 pm

      Great article Steve.
      For Mid-Season runners, what factors help you determine if you approach cross training via:
      A) -Easy running -Cross training for the “workouts” vs
      B) -Running as workouts -Cross training for aerobic recovery/adding volume to training week


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