Cross Training, Strength and Conditioning

by Chris Cooper

The aim of this page is to provide an overview of what cross training and strength and conditioning training are, and how and why they are important tools to complement and/supplement your running training.

Many runners choose to run and do nothing else in terms of training, but this approach neglects the benefits that other types of work can provide, in terms of development of strength, power, flexibility and endurance.

Cross training and strength and conditioning sessions are in essence quite different, but they both serve a common purpose, providing additional non-running training that can be done in addition to running (i.e. within the same training cycle) or when you may be injured and unable to run. In the latter case, the application is to maintain fitness and use this time productively to work on other areas that will enhance your running in the medium to long term.

 

Cross Training

Cross training normally refers to other cardiovascular based training, with the most common examples including:

  • Swimming
  • Cycling
  • Elliptical/cross country skiing machine
  • Hiking
  • Cross fit/ ‘military style’ training
  • Spin Classes
  • Other cardio-based gym classes
  • Water running (i.e. in a pool with a belt)

You may choose to do cross training for a number of reasons:

  • You are new to running and want to do more cardio work while increasing your running gradually in order to minimise the risk of injury
  • You want to add variety to your training rather than only running
  • You are injured or returning to running from injury, and you want to work your cardiovascular system through a form of training that is without impact
  • Due to inclement weather, the amount of time you can run outside is restricted

All of the above are really good reasons to consider cross training, and it may even be possible to integrate some cross training quite easily into your day to day life e.g. cycling to work rather than driving. Cross training could also be a leisure or social activity that you do with friends or family, helping to increase your fitness in a social context e.g. gym classes, hiking.

Cross training can be beneficial in terms of simulating the effects of running speed training, as it may involve a series of intervals that raise your heart rate in the same way that a track session might. Examples of this include a good, hard spin class that includes a series of sprints and ‘hill climbs’; or swimming training involving reps of different lengths at different speeds. If you struggle with running speed training due to past or recurrent injury, both of these options will go some way to replacing this type of training.

One of the main benefits of cross training is that whatever you do it will help to reduce excess body mass. As a runner, keeping your body fat percentage low is extremely beneficial for increased performance. The extra activity you do through cross training will burn more calories and help your body shed non-essential body fat. It is important to emphasise that the important thing is to keep body fat rather than weight low. Muscle weighs more than fat so losing weight in itself could be counter-productive. What you should try and do is work on reducing body fat and increasing your body muscle percentage so that you are lean and strong.

Whatever type of cross training you choose to do should be entirely up to you in terms of what you enjoy, can fit into your lifestyle easily, and can provide a physical stimulus that helps promote the type of fitness that will improve your running.

One note of caution, if the aim of your training is to improve your running performance, it is essential that cross training supplements rather than detracts from your running. Specificity of training is really important to achieve optimum running performance, so maximising volume (safely) and the amount of time that you can spend running is most beneficial for increasing running fitness. This is because the time you spend running not only improves your overall physical cardiovascular fitness, it also strengthens the muscles required for running and will help to improve running form (economy) in ways other types of training cannot do.

Therefore, if you have an hour available to train, you will gain more from an appropriate running session rather than going for a bike ride or a swim instead.

Also, make sure you have ample time available to recover from your cross training so that it does not negatively impact on your next running session. For example, doing a hard spin class on the morning of the same day you do an evening track session is probably not the right thing to do, as your muscles are likely to still be fatigued and unable to perform at the optimal level for your track work.

I thoroughly recommend cross training as part of a balanced running training programme and providing you choose the right type of training and do an appropriate amount, it is likely to support your development as a runner.

One final thing, just the same as with a running session, it is really important to warm up at the start of a session, cool down towards the end and finish things with sufficient appropriate static stretches.

 

Strength and Conditioning

As you increase the volume and quality of your running training, your overall cardio-vascular fitness is likely increase a lot more quickly than the strength of the muscles required for running. Therefore, you need to work on strengthening your muscles and keeping them supple in order to increase their tolerance to the rising demands you are placing on them by running more often and at greater intensity. In doing so, you will not only help to minimise the risk of injury, this will also be help you to improve your running economy and your endurance towards the end of longer races.

Despite this, many runners do not do any kind of strength and conditioning work, and while they may be getting fitter in a cardiovascular context, their bodies may otherwise not be in great shape. This is manifested in such ways as poor running form and technique – such as short stride length, hunched shoulders or an inability to support the body on long running sessions. You may also see that when such runners stretch at the end of a session, their muscles have such a short range of movement it is not possible for them to elongate their muscles very far. It is more than likely that such runners will soon suffer from an injury of some form if they don’t take steps to address these issues.

Therefore, it is very important to include within a running training programme work that will help to strengthen muscles and increase flexibility.

 

Strength

In terms of strength, it is important to remember that the muscles you use during running are not limited to the most obvious ones in your lower body, such as your glutes, quads and calves. You are also using your upper body when swinging your arms, so good strength in the shoulders and upper back is especially important.

The bit in between your arms and legs – your ‘core’ (abdominals and lower back) is really important too. This is the section that connects your upper and lower body and it is absolutely essential that you work towards having a strong and well-functioning core.

 

Flexibility

In order that they function at their optimal level, all of these muscles must be kept supple and flexible. Therefore, it is really important to undertake work that involves stretching these muscles. You should always stretch after every running or cross training session, but this is unlikely to be enough to keep your muscles as supple as they need to be.

For example, training such as running and cycling (particularly at high intensity) will actively work to reduce the range of movement in your hamstrings. As such, work to stretch your hamstrings is vitally important in order to develop their flexibility.

Therefore, the conditioning work that you need to undertake encompasses training that increases both strength and flexibility.

 

What can I do?

It is really easy to add strength and conditioning work to your training schedule, and there are a number of different things that you can do, including:

  • Structured strength programme at the gym using free weights and/or resistance machines
  • Strength based gym classes e.g. Body Pump, circuit training
  • Good home fitness workout DVDs e.g. Insanity
  • Hot yoga classes e.g. Bikram yoga
  • Conditioning/core based classes e.g. Pilates, Body Balance

This is not an exhaustive list, but does provide some good examples of things that you can do.

Most of the activities listed are gym/studio based and many runners are notoriously ‘gym phobic’, but with the rise of budget gyms, membership costs are much lower than they were only a few years ago. Therefore, it may be the right time to join a gym if you haven’t done so already. Some people also feel intimidated by the idea of going to a gym for the first time, but there is really no need. It is worth overcoming this ‘fear factor’ as the training you can do at a gym is so beneficial.

If you are new to the gym, a good starting point is to try an appropriate class. A particularly good one is Body Pump. This workout to music with weights consists of ten tracks, each of which focusses on a different part of the body e.g. glutes, quads, shoulders, back, abdominals. As it is led by an instructor, you can follow quite simply what you need to do. These classes are also fun while hard at the same time. You can choose appropriate weights for your current strength levels, and the technique you develop through high reps within these classes is transferable to doing other work elsewhere in the gym with free weights.

Circuit training classes are also fantastic, and a well-structured circuits class is likely to provide a very relevant form of strength and conditioning training.

Other types of classes are good for developing balance and core strength, such as Pilates (although the quality of Pilates classes and their intensity can vary widely) and Body Balance. Some gyms also offer some form of yoga classes, often at a very basic level.

Most gyms will offer an induction that provides instruction on how to use the equipment available and many will offer an initial consultation with a trainer who can put together a workout plan appropriate for your fitness goals. Explain that you want to improve your overall strength and conditioning for running and any decent trainer will be able to put together a suitable programme for you.

Hot yoga classes have increased massively in popularity in recent years and these are also very beneficial for developing balance, flexibility and discipline. They are performed in special heated studios, and the reason for this is because the heat helps to keep your muscles nice and warm so they are able to stretch further safely. In Manchester city centre, there are two studios that offer hot yoga classes – Bikram Yoga Manchester in the Northern Quarter and The Yoga Lounge on Deansgate.

There are plenty of things you can do at home with no or little equipment, and for beginners an appropriate workout DVD could be the option to choose as this will provide clear instruction for you to follow. Alternatively, with minimal equipment (e.g. some free weights; a pull-up bar; resistance bands), you can do a really good workout without leaving your house. This may be more convenient if time to go to a gym or studio is limited due to other commitments.

This page is designed to provide an introduction to the types of supplemental you can do to benefit your running. There is not enough space to go into detail about all the many different things you can do but hopefully it has helped to give you some ideas.

If you would like any further advice or support to help you decide what will work best for you, please feel free to email training@manchesterfrontrunners.org