A Demonstration of the Importance of Crosstraining for Runners

When I was training to run races the first thing I’d cut out was the cross-training. There is no debate that cross-training is important. It was not unknown to me. Yet when schedule pressures, real and contrived, caused me to need to cut something it was the cross-training that always got cut. My 30 day Health Reboot challenge was essentially 30 days of nothing but what would be considered cross-training. That was predominantly training via cycling. The whole time I was curious what my running fitness looked like at the end of that. I now have the answer. While I always knew cross-training was important I am still floored by how much that is so.

One of the things that often happens when I start dialing in my fitness is that I again pine for doing endurance running. I first started picking it up as a hobby for getting more fit at the end of 2011. By May of 2012 I ran my first 10K. By September of 2012 my second. By October of 2012 I ran my first half marathon. That was by far the most satisfying run I have ever done. I should do an entire post around that one race alone. By December of 2013 I ran my first, and so far last, marathon. My running “career” after that was mostly downhill though. In 2013 I intended to run a marathon a year in perpetuity. That never happened. I was able to get back up to half marathon distances in preparation for a Disney half marathon in April 2020. You can guess why that event didn’t happen. I did run that virtually though! But again shortly after it went downhill again. I ran my last race in November 2021, another 10K, with hopes to make 2022 the year I returned to running fitness again. I started off well but it ended with most of 2022 and to the present with absolutely no running at all. Now that I’m dialing things in again though I’ve been really interested in bringing back up the running training again.

My usual path to starting up running has been to start off doing a few miles of fast walking several times a week to get some “distance on my legs”. Being a computer geek with no athletic interests I am incredibly sedentary. I don’t have some regular activity like basketball, golf, or something that gets my joints and leg muscles going to build from. This is therefore a nice intr. After a couple of weeks I then start applying the Galloway Run/Walk Method which has runners intermix running and walking intervals. At the very least I treat that as an early way to build up cardiovascular endurance. Hypothetically this can and should be used for running throughout since it helps reduce probability of injuries for very long runs. I therefore do that for long runs as well. Once I’m trained up though I often do shorter runs, sub 30-minute runs for example, as pure running. As I wrote above though one of the things that gets done too infrequently, if at all, is cross-training.

Cross-training for running includes things like cycling, weight lifting, yoga, etc. It is about working your muscles and joints in a way they don’t get worked during a running workout. With the 30 days of riding I essentially had 30 days of what would be considered a key cross-training workout. I had mixed in yoga, stretching, calisthenics, etc. at a minimal level too. Besides stretching these too get short shrift when I am doing my traditional running training. I didn’t want to do anything to derail the 30 day challenge but now that I am out of it I wanted to see how much all that training did for me from a running perspective.

To test this I did a twenty minute “hard run”. That is a run that starts off pretty easy but ends at or near maximum heart rate. While I don’t have a similar training run I can call up directly I can look at how fast my run pace was on slightly longer run/walk training runs that had 20 minutes of running within it. I have data for my training runs going back to 2011. This run definitely had me at balls to the wall effort for the last few minutes which got me near my peak heart rate. With all that put together the first mile split was 10:50 (10 minutes, 50 seconds) and the last 0.79 miles split time was 11:28. That put my average pace at 11:09. For only a month of training that I was pretty pleased by that. Granted I felt like I was going way faster, but to get up to that level in a month was very exciting to me. Looking at my training data without the cross training it would take me a couple of months to get up to that pace for that long a distance. Looking back at all the training data it appears that only in 2011, so over a decade ago, was the one time that I was able to achieve a similar average pace on runs. My heart rate wasn’t maxing out back then so perhaps I could have pushed it more. The more recent runs though do have a comparable max heart rate for achieving these results. From that perspective alone it is very telling how important the cross-training was. It was only the next day that I truly understood why I need to do more than just one thing in the cross-training though.

As I wrote above, almost all of my real effort for the 30 Day Health Reboot Challenge was stationary bike cycling. I did almost all those runs on a Peloton, which has clip pedals. That means that hypothetically the workout have both pulling and pushing force motion unlike if one were to just ride the bike with regular pedals. If I look at the muscle usage diagram Peloton provides you can see that hypothetically both the front of my legs and the back of my legs, glutes, etc. are getting a good workout. Having had fatigue all over my legs as I ramped up exercising I can tell you this diagram isn’t completely wrong. The recovery I felt from this run however shows that this cycling training is far from uniform like this.

Peloton body activity diagram showing subsantial activation of muscles throughout the legs, glutes, and other areas

In the past when I’d push myself running wise like I have I would often get excess fatigue and delayed onset muscle soreness(DOMS) in my quadriceps (quads), hamstrings, calves, and more recently my glutes as well. When pushed really hard like this often the DOMS is so severe that I actually have range of motion issues, which I jokingly refer to as rigor mortis. I did have DOMS from this run to that level again. However unlike in previous years I only felt that in my quads. All of the rear muscle groups: calves, hamstrings, glutes, etc. had none of that. Even as I write this a few days later I still have some tenderness in my quads meanwhile none developed elsewhere.

Along with the DOMS in the quads I did have some tightness in my lower back the next morning as well. In recent years even after being pretty decently into training my lower back would often tighten up substantially after runs. The level of tightness from this intense run was not as bad as I had after some much easier training runs further into race training. I also had some tightness in my middle-to-front part of my hips when I woke up the next morning too. That was gone after moving around a bit and never resurfaced again.

My interpretation of all of the above is that the cycling training is doing an incredible job of conditioning my calves, hamstrings, glutes. To a lesser extent it is conditioning my lower back and my quads as well. However those muscles and others really need additional stimulation to be properly cross-trained.

I already intended to ramp up the calisthenics/yoga part of my Goal #4 requirements for the next month. Because I really want to get into running more I am instead going to be replacing that not with just more structured yoga and calisthenics, like I originally intended, but with a four week full body weight program program that Peloton has called “The Stronger You”. I already did the assessment for that today which totally kicked my butt. With these I hope to really help get better run training.

Along with the extra weight training I am still going to keep up with the stretching and some yoga in order to keep everything moving smoothly. That will probably punch up my total daily training up to 30-45 minutes on days that there is weight training (there are only four training days per week). I also intend to do running once a week but going back to more of a cardiovascular Zone 3/4 type run with run/walk intervals as needed.

My objective with this plan is to start being able to ramp up the running but in a way that doesn’t cannibalize the more important full body training I’m getting from the cycling and other exercises. I’ll continue this through the end of June and then do a re-assessment at that point. If all goes well I’d love to eye replacing some cycling days for running days and pick a 10K to start getting momentum for races building.