By Malindi Elmore
When I was a “pure runner” who supplemented cross training in times of injury or for the purposes of injury prevention, I was very skeptical of the benefits, and rightly so, because I was not doing it properly!
What I have tried to convey in my previous posts is that cross training should be approached as actual training. It should also be structured and goal-oriented, just like your running. Doing an easy 30-minute spin session with your heart rate barely above resting does not qualify as cross training; nor does going at a frantic heart-bursting intensity.
My evidence, while somewhat personal and anecdotal, is consistent among triathlete-runners (that’s my new title for my current pursuits…runner first with a healthy dose of swimming and biking to keep things interesting!). My husband transitioned first to being a triathlete-runner and he swore by the effects. By backing off significantly on both his running and intensity, but increasing bike and swim hours, Graham was able to run as fast with less effort over long distances than he was able to as a “pure runner” (adjusted for being a 40-something-old full-time working parent versus a full-time 3:51 miler). He tried to convince me to come over to the dark side for years, but I resisted…until I had no other choice.
Last summer I had a baby and it took me SEVEN months to be able to run more than 5-minutes without alternating stabbing and aching pain in my pelvis. I had no choice but to embrace swimming and biking as my new training (not cross training!) activities. And as a goal-oriented person, as soon as I developed structure and goals, I started to actually enjoy my new disciplines. After finally being able to run between 45 to 60-minutes at an easy pace, I decided to “test” my running in a local 10km road race. Initially, I thought that if I run under 40-minutes I would be happy, but two days before the race I did a few tempo kilometers and revised my goal to 38-minutes based on how I felt.
I did very little warm-up prior to the race – partly to keep my mileage low and partly because my baby was hungry – so I started out conservatively. My first kilometer was 15-seconds faster than my “goal” pace but it felt easy! After the second kilometer, I realized that I would have no problem sustaining that pace, I ran extremely even at 3:30/km for the entire race (35-minutes). The most amazing thing was that I had never felt so good running a 10km race in my life!
Granted, my result was 2-minutes slower than my best time, I still take away the positive message that with NO workouts and less than twenty hours of running in the previous two years, I was very under-trained as a runner. If I had not done my swimming and biking activities, I would have easily been 10-minutes slower –if I had even been able to run at all. More importantly, it was my legs and not my aerobic system that was the limiting factor, and I knew that it was only a matter of a few hard runs to get my running legs used to the load again. It’s likely that within another month of specific training I could run a personal best in the 10km.
The key was that instead of approaching training as a runner, I approached it as a triathlete. This allowed me to do more “minutes” of training in a week and certainly way more threshold work than I would as a “pure runner.” I built a huge aerobic system, and the stimulus of different training was also beneficial. I know that specific running work is also important to ultimately run fast, but I think that my story (and that of many triathlete-runners) is that cross training is vastly underrated for runners and can make you faster, healthier and stronger.
Malindi Elmore is a Run SMART Project private coach. As an athlete she competed in the 2004 Olympic Games in the 1500m. She’s a 6-time National Champion and Stanford record-holder in the 800m and 1500m. To customize her 1500/mile training plan go here. To work with Malindi privately sign up here.