Running is one of the best and most popular ways to exercise. That being said, some runners are still not physically fit. How is this so? The answer lies in their training routine. Many runners only train in two of the five “pillars of physical fitness” on a regular basis.
The five pillars of physical fitness for runners are:
Many runners only address two of these on a regular basis: speed and endurance. Many runners train without paying much attention to other components of their running fitness. To optimize running performance and prevent injury the other three components of running fitness must also receive special attention. Cross training programs can help achieve this result.
Cross training refers to any training method that does not involve running as its primary activity. Cross training can involve cycling, swimming, weight lifting, body weight exercises, yoga and aerobic classes. It can also involve playing sports like soccer, basketball and tennis that require starting, stopping, cutting and twisting. Cross training activities can build the speed and endurance provided by running, as well as the power, flexibility and balance you miss while running.
If you want to maintain or improve your fitness without logging extra miles, cross training is a great supplement to your normal routine. Not only are you training your muscles to prevent injury, but you will avoid injury that results from running too many miles. Let’s explore how to use cross training to improve all aspects of running fitness.
Speed and Endurance
Speed and endurance—two terms runners are very familiar with—are absolutely vital to optimizing performance in competitions. After all, it is exactly what running is: the ability to maintain a certain pace over a particular distance. Training on a track, performing a tempo run or going on a distance run are the primary means by which runners train their speed and endurance.
Power is the ability to exert a particular force on an object. It improves running performance by increasing the force applied to the ground. With increased power, runners can propel themselves farther with each strike. Weight training exercises to increase power include:
- Leg presses
- Hamstring curls
Power is also gained through explosive exercises for the lower extremities, also known as plyometric. Some plyometric exercises to build power include:
- Box jumps
- Jump squats
- Power skips
Flexibility refers to the range of motion of a joint or a group of joints. Flexibility can improve running performance and prevent injury. Having flexible limbs can help prevent common running injuries such as muscle and tendon strains and tears. Another benefit is the increased power that comes with a greater range of motion.
To increase flexibility, various stretches can be performed. As detailed in a previous blog post, static stretches should be saved for after your run, when your muscles have already warmed. Maintaining a regular habit of performing static stretches can greatly improve flexibility. Before your run, dynamic stretching can warm-up your muscles, increase flexibility and maximize muscle performance. Looking to switch up your workout? Practicing yoga can also build flexibility, balance and core strength.
Another fitness component often neglected by runners is balance. Balance is the ability to control the body’s position and movement. When running, it is the ability to maintain posture and form throughout the entire running cycle, especially your foot strike. If a runner has poor balance on foot strike, he or she will place abnormal stresses across the hip, knee, ankle and foot joints, leading to inefficiency and injury.
To increase balance, increase your core strength. A weak core can lead to balance problems, resulting in injury. Yoga and core workouts can help build up your core strength. Seek out exercises that emphasize plank positions, rather than traditional abdominal exercises like crunches. “The core” involves more than just the abdominal muscles; it involves the lower back muscles and hip muscles as well. Target all these muscle groups for optimal training balance.
The Benefits of Cross Training
Although running is convenient, many runners forget that great fitness gains can be achieved through other physical activities and sports. Try cycling, swimming and high intensity aerobic classes to build cardiovascular fitness. Sports that involve cutting and sudden changes in direction like soccer and basketball can build speed, power and balance. Surprisingly, low-impact sports such as tennis can also train power and core strength when played at high intensity.
Before starting any cross training program for running, determine your goals. Your aim should be to improve overall running performance and to help prevent running injuries. Always start slow and build in intensity gradually. Jumping right in to a 90-minute soccer match or entering a tennis tournament with limited training can lead to fatigue and injury that can set back your running program. Be cautious when entering into your program and listen to your body.