If I’ve learned one thing from this past year of training, it’s that cross training can be more useful than most runners think.
It’s not just an easy form of activity to do on recovery days, nor is it just a cheap substitute for normal running when injured.
Cross training, especially in the forthcoming years, especially for those getting older, is an important form of aerobic training. And there’s several key reasons I discovered for why it may become more valuable for those training to run marathons and other endurance races….
Climate change is making outdoor summer runs more difficult.
While statistically Chicago’s 2019 summer may not have been that bad… I definitely felt a difference in the amount of humidity and general heat. It was a lot harder to run outdoors this year than in past. And without the variety of privilege that a lot of local runners have and utilize, it was often unworkable for me to run at the volume I had grown used to in past years.
Even in late spring, towards the end of my Vancouver 2019 training cycle, I had a very hard time consistently managing the outdoor workouts I had been used to. It was a key reason I joined a nearby gym and started aerobically cross training more often.
If April 2019 already felt that bad, then I knew the summer would feel especially brutal. Sure enough, this particular summer in Chicago was an extended and strangely unpleasant humid heat for someone trying to run home after work.
I’m well aware of the looming, largely unavoidable climate change we will see during this next century. I realize the planet’s getting warmer, and these conditions are probably not going to get better anytime soon, barring a cataclysmic change.
Running outside in extreme heat is very difficult. If we’re facing the prospect of more extreme heat and weather over time, then it may make sense to bring some of that training indoors.
But don’t just assume you’ll use the treadmill….
Treadmill runs are actually more difficult than regular runs, sometimes too much
In my now-extensive treadmill experience, I’ve found that 2-3 mile runs on a treadmill are even more difficult than runstwice that distance done outdoors in normal conditions.
It’s not just the relative monotony of using the treadmill either. Typically you run a treadmill in a gym or indoor environment air conditioned to room temperature or warmer: 73 degrees Fahrenheit, 23 degrees Celsius. In sedentary conditions, 73 degrees feels perfect. But when you’re physically active… not so much.
The human body warms when running, to a point where it generally feels 20 degrees warmer than the actual temperature. This is why the generally ideal running temperature is between 40-60 degrees Fahrenheit (4-16 degrees Celsius). Once you’re up to speed and your heart rate is around 65-80% of its max, those conditions feel like sitting in room temperature.
But if you’re already in room temperature when you work out, then running feels like 93 degrees Fahrenheit (34’C). You now feel quite hot. In fact, road races with such outdoor temperatures frequently see lots of dehydration, heat exhaustion episodes and other health problems. I’ve talked about this problem before.
Add in another complication: Because you’re not moving forward, and because you’re indoors, there is no wind blowing past you. The lack of a cooling wind makes you feel even hotter.
So, every run on a treadmill is actually similar to doing other workouts in a relative sauna. You’re actually to some degree risking your health in most situations. And sure, if it’s hotter than 80 degrees (F, 27’C) outside and there’s little to no wind, those conditions may be better… especially if you live in Vegas like I do and it’s 110 degrees (F, 43’C) outside.
But it’s very hard for most to train for a marathon every day in those conditions, especially to endure those conditions for over an hour. This is actually one (unshared) reason companies design their commercial treadmills to shut down after an hour: They know there’s a substantial health risk to people who try to run beyond that without a break.
Since gyms aren’t going to figure it out and lower the thermostat anytime soon (plus, during warmer months, air conditioning to a lower temperature simply isn’t practical), you probably need to take counter measures when training indoors, and do something other than run the treadmill.
Here is where accordant cross training at the same aerobic intensity can help you just as well, without the heat exhaustive problem of trying to run in those conditions. Your body will give off less heat since it usually takes less physical exertion per minute to cross train than to run. Yet you can still hit an aerobic heart rate and intensity, and get the needed aerobic benefit.
Heat or no heat, the pounding of running is another reason to consider cross training.
The pounding of high mileage compromises health and development
There was a lengthy period after I became a serious runner where my everyday 60+ minute runs were quite beneficial for my development. There also came a subsequent point where that development’s bell curve peaked, and continuing that level of volume was actually hurting me more than helping me. I began slowing down over time, as my body shed muscle and ceased to fully recover from runs.
I hit that point sooner than others because I started seriously running later in life. A lot of HS and collegiate runners who continue training into adulthood can get away with beating themselves up for much longer before diminishing returns because they still have the bounce-back youth of their 20’s (and for some also their early 30’s). Even if their habit of super-high mileage and intensity becomes objectively harmful, their bodies bounce-back ability forgives their transgressions. As Ryan Hall would tell you, however, your body stops forgiving once you pass age 30.
Many endurance runners plug on at the same volume and intensity as their younger days, assuming their resultant slowdown and increasing tendency for injury and burnout is simply age creeping in on them… while ignoring the many runners who find their greatest success after that point in life, often after learning to dial back the raw volume and one-note intensity, and to build in smart consistent periods of recovery.
(And sure, some of those latter day athletes do so because of doping and performance enhancing drugs… but a lot of success happens far from the podium without the use of PED’s)
Since I have zero competitive incentive to train at an elite volume and intensity, it makes more sense to me to recognize my body’s aging process and replace the emphasis on raw volume with an emphasis on maximizing the quality and focus of the training I do.
The pounding of relentless days of running long distance take their toll when left unchecked, not just on your joints, bones and muscles, but also on your hormones. All your running generates a ton of oxidative stress and cortisol, which unabated could damage your hormonal health.
Men in particular can see a dangerous drop in testosterone, which is not just a sex hormone but also promotes muscle healing and development, renewal of the body, as well as general life energy. Men who feel tired often probably have lowered testosterone levels. And no, synthetic testosterone therapies will not solve the problem, nor address the other hormonal deficiencies. The overtraining still hurts you more than it could help.
You don’t just need sleep to heal up and avoid this damage. You also need breaks from the taxing activities that break you down… like long distance running and speed workouts.
Now, all this said, you need to do some of these workouts to build the needed endurance fitness. You don’t just have to run to do that, though.
Done right, aerobic cross training can also develop endurance fitness
In many cases, you have an unavoidable need to do long distance runs. You need long distance runs to train to run 26.22 miles. You probably need longer tempo segments to learn to run a race at a goal pace. Speedwork is helpful to drill optimum mechanics and efficiency at as fast a speed as possible into your running form.
But aerobic fitness can be developed in more ways than just a slow 45-90 minute distance run. Doing runs like this is key to your neuromuscular fitness, sure. But it may not be as effective to do 3-5 of them in a week as it may be to do 1-2 of them, and buffer those runs with similarly demanding sessions on a spin bike, ARC Trainer, rowing machine, outside on an actual bike, swimming in a pool, etc.
Your body’s aerobic, cardiovascular and respiratory fitness can be developed just as well doing those other activities. Plus, in some ways, those activities can still benefit your neuromuscular fitness, while giving your bones and other muscles a bit of a rest, plus generating circulation that promotes their recovery. For most of them, you’re seated, and still get to work most of the parts/muscles involved in running… without the pounding of 150-190 steps per minute.
Some days the body is too beat up for full workouts, but can still train
I mentioned slowing down over time. Often, my body could have used a day or two off from running, but I wanted to maintain training volume or something else that required I run that day.
What I discovered this past year is that I had more than enough capacity to aerobically train just about every day, even after hard workouts. It was my bones, joints, and muscles that needed more time to rest from the pounding of running.
Cross training can allow you to get in that 45-60+ minutes of easy aerobic work, in a way that can prevent your skeleton and muscles from having to take another pounding.
Often, even strength training can be fully possible, if much of it involves the upper body while you take it easy on lower body work. Maybe you save your squats, lunges, and Romanian deadlifts, perhaps also your planks, crunches and core work… for the end of an easy run during the week, and then do your upper body weight work on recovery days where you cross train but don’t run much at all.
Those who train for triathlons end up “cross training” by default. Since their races requires they compete in three separate aerobic endurance disciplines (the swim, the bike, the run), they have to consistently alternate between the three forms of exercise throughout training. This in turn allows key muscles to recover from each discipline, while training their bodies in a variety of ways.
A marathon runner could possibly train as a triathlete, just for the marathon, and end up in great shape to run the marathon on race day.
Of course, you don’t need to specifically train as a triathlete to maximize the use of cross training in marathon training. All you simply need to do is buffer your key running workouts with moderate training in other forms of aerobic exercise.
As the planet warms up and as you age, cross training could become a more attractive option for your marathon training. I certainly recommend you make it a consistent part of your marathon training plan.