Tag Archives: aerobic exercise

How runners can effectively track cross training

person on elliptical trainer

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One thing clear to me this summer is that getting in a lot of miles is probably not going to happen. It’s one reason I went ahead and joined the gym near my home: I need to do more to fill in the blanks with cross training. I’ll hit my key workouts whether outdoors or indoors, and then have a variety of indoor options with which to fill in the blanks.

Filling in the blanks however requires some analysis. People cross train, but people don’t have a firm basis from which to equate their cross training to the needed aerobic development.

How much work on the bike or elliptical equals one mile of easy running? Most do an indeterminate amount of cross training, but beyond knowing that it helps some with training, they have no idea how many miles or how much progress it has helped make them.

(I will also note that, while some writers and coaches think it so, I don’t consider treadmill running cross training. I realize at a zero incline, with a consistent surface, and with no wind resistance… running on a treadmill could be easier than regular running. However, there are enough equalizing factors I’ll discuss another time that can and usually do make it as difficult, sometimes more difficult, than regular running. Plus, you still are bearing all of your weight at a higher speed and intensity, as you do with running. So, I consider miles run on the treadmill equal to regular running miles.)

What’s the best way to figure out how much value, how much volume, a cross training workout provided to your training? It’s a question I’ve dabbled with over time, and wrestled with more in recent memory, especially now that I’m cross training more frequently at the gym.

I think the best way to figure this out is:

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The Quadathlon Long Distance Gym Workout

Are you a member of a gym? Does that gym have treadmills and at least three other different kinds of readily available cardio machines, like ellipticals, spin bikes, rowing machines, ARC Trainers, stair climbers… maybe even a pool (assuming of course that you can swim, and own a waterproof watch)?

Are you training for a long distance event like a marathon, an ultra, a bike race, a triathlon, or jury duty?

Then boy do I have a long distance workout for you!

Creative minds can look at all the information I’ve provided and immediately see where I’m going with this (and by the way ignoring a jury duty notice may technically be a crime), but I’m going to spell it out either way.

The Quadathlon is a 2-4 hour workout where you spend 30-60 minutes working at a sustainable pace on each of four different cardio exercises.

This of course requires that each machine or avenue of cross training is readily available: You don’t want to go do the stair climber section and find out they’re all taken or broken. So, of course, make sure the machines you want to use are available.

Also, how long you spend on each machine may be a function of a gym’s policies. Many gyms set a 30 minute limit for using a single machine. So then at a gym like that you do this as a 2 hour workout, period.

This also is a purely cardio/aerobic exercise, because the continuous aerobic activity is integral to the workout. A circuit of weight machines doesn’t work because, along with the stops and starts, trying to speed through these without stopping can be dangerous. It’s also very hard to find 30-60 minutes of continuous weight exercises (and the needed open machines!) that won’t leave you injured. Plus you have to adjust the weight of every machine. It’s a pain; don’t do it.

I recommend starting if possible with the most difficult apparatus first, and then finishing with the easiest, for obvious reasons: Your body will be freshest for the toughest exercise, and will reach the 4th and final one when you’re most tired. If this were intended to be a contest, I’d say do the exercises in reverse. But your goal is not to beat anybody: It’s to get a good workout that won’t injure you.

For example, because cross training is generally done as a soft-impact substitute for running, it makes the most sense to make running on the treadmill the 1st exercise. Running is fundamentally tougher to do than most other cardio exercises because you are bearing your entire weight throughout the exercise.

However, if one particular set of machines tends to fill up often while the others are empty, I would then start with the busiest machines first. Usually in gyms this is the treadmill, and that’s typically a logical starting point anyway. But gyms with rowing machines tend not to stock a lot of those despite being popular. So maybe if you want to row and that’s open you should start with that.

One exception: Some people consider swimming nice and relaxing, and may want to do that last. But if you struggle to stay afloat when tired, maybe don’t do that one last. I don’t want you to drown at the end of a 4 hour workout! Maybe do that one 2nd.

If you use the pool as one exercise, get your triathlete on afterward by quickly changing into gym-appropriate gear for your next exercise (probably the most difficult one). And vice versa: If switching to the pool, change quickly into your pool gear. Of course, don’t run or walk fast on wet terrain. Be brisk but be careful. Do all your rushing while sitting down.

A good exercise to do last, if available, is the exercise bike, especially if you opt for the easier recumbent (sitting) bike. It’s easier to maintain a basic aerobic effort when exhausted on the bike. Plus, more importantly, many tend to feel real stiff when they get off the bike after a long workout. You don’t want to get on another machine for 30-60 more minutes in that condition.

If your gym has it, you’ve used it before for more than a few minutes, and you’re up for it… another good final exercise is the hand crank, a sort of arm bike. The advantage to finishing with this is all the other exercises require your legs, and this one uses your arms instead, which should be somewhat fresher and won’t ask anything of your tired legs.

A good example of a common Quadathlon Workout would be this:

Event 1: Treadmill, at tempo, 30 minutes.
Event 2: Elliptical, easy/moderate effort, 30 minutes.
Event 3: ARC Trainer, first 3/4 easy, last 1/4 moderate, 30 minutes.
Event 4: Spin bike, whatever you can muster, 30 minutes.

Or, if your gym has a really popular rowing machine and it’s available:

Event 1: Rowing machine, moderate effort, 30 minutes.
Event 2: Treadmill, first 3/4 easy, last 1/4 at tempo, 30 minutes.
Event 3: Elliptical, easy/moderate effort, 30 minutes.
Event 4: Spin bike, whatever you can muster, 30 minutes.

Or maybe you cannot or don’t want to run at all this weekend.

Event 1: Swimming in gym pool, 30 minutes. Change into gym gear.
Event 2: ARC Trainer, easy/moderate effort, 30 minutes.
Event 3: Elliptical, easy/moderate effort, 30 minutes.
Event 4: Spin bike, whatever you can muster, 30 minutes.

Or:

Event 1: Jury duty, wait 4 hours, get sent home instead.
Event 2: Get to gym, get on treadmill…

… okay, maybe not.

For the most part, the Quadathlon is a challenging 2 hour aerobic workout, requiring differing ranges of motion throughout, and you usually only need to run 3-4 miles total.

This is an excellent idea for weekend “long run” workouts where you might not have it in you to knock out 10-20 miles that day but you do want to get in a long effort.

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Injuries, your aerobic fitness, and your neuromuscular fitness

person seating on bench while holding knees

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Most common injuries happen because your aerobic fitness improves before your neuromuscular fitness does. You aerobically can run faster, but your bones/muscles/tendons/etc can’t handle running faster yet.

This is actually one (of many) reasons many running minds oppose tempo running. You’re often asking a lot from your body’s structure before it’s built up strength to handle it. While I don’t consider that a damning argument against tempo running, that’s a valid point.

This is also a key reason most recommend you do most of your running at an easy pace. You may be aerobically able to run faster, but that doesn’t necessarily mean your body is ready to run faster. The best way to help your body build the strength to run faster over time is to ask it to run a lot, rather than to ask it to run faster.

The high volume of lower stress running builds the strength and endurance that will facilitate faster running later. Obviously it’s still a good idea to do some faster running, but not too much.

If you struggle with shin splints, IT band issues, knee/ankle/hip problems or muscle injuries… you may want to keep running, but slow way down.

You also will want to work on your form and make sure you’re not slamming your feet into the ground, unnecessarily torqueing your body or bearing weight on your joints, etc. This is to some extent a contributing factor to recurring injuries.

But for the most part, your recurring injuries are from running too hard too much too soon as your aerobic fitness grows ahead of your neuromuscular fitness.

If you want more info on the relationship between aerobic and neuromuscular fitness, the book Build Your Running Body is a great all-around running resource for this and other subject. It’s definitely worth a look.

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Now that it’s cold, you need a better warm-up

As Chicago temps have now dropped to their traditional late-autumn 20’s and 30’s Fahrenheit, my hands and feet are now feeling quite cold at the start of runs.

Previously, it only took 1-2 miles before the generated heat of my running warmed my hands and feet back to normal. But during the last couple runs, I’ve found it taking as long as 30 minutes for my feet to warm up to normal.

That’s a long time to tempt frostbite in your feet. And keep in mind it’s been mostly dry. If I was running through slush or snow, the resulting moisture could have exacerbated the problem.


Did something change? Am I suffering from circulation problems?

No way. The answer is simple: I’ve gotten fitter, and that ironically has made warming up on cold-weather runs harder.

In previous years, regular runs required a greater effort from me than they do now. That greater effort means more heat, which with normal run-elevated circulation warms your limbs up sooner.

While better fitness means faster paces at easier effort, the easier effort doesn’t produce warmth as quickly, meaning those cold hands and feet are going to stay cold longer unless I push the pace hard (which for various reasons I’d rather not do in these runs).


Now, acclimation will help. As I grow accustomed to being out in the cold, my body will better sustain comfort or warmth in cold weather. By January I will probably not need 30 minutes of running to comfortably warm in clear conditions.

In the interim, however, this isn’t going to fly. With trail races coming up this winter, I will be facing some non-clear conditions and thus need to figure out how to warm up quickly.

I’m not about to tire and wear myself out with tempo sprints and strides before every long run, overheating myself before the real workout starts just to get my feet warm. There has to be a better way.

And there is.

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