Cross Training Your Way to PRs!

05/01/2008 - 11:06

By Pete Rea/ZAP Fitness/Running Journal/February 2008

Improving Your Running Off the Roads

Running Journal readers familiar with my column are no doubt aware of my belief in relatively high volume training. Whether an athlete is 15 or 65, more often than not I have found it is the athlete who can put in more relaxed to moderate exercise over months and years who will see the finish line first. During the last 15 years, however, I have slowly but surely opened my eyes to the concept that not all of this volume has to come in the form of running. Call me a reformed purist, but time and time again -- both with athletes I have observed as well as coached -- the road to success in long distance running has commonly been paved with bricks made of material other than brick.

Pool Running/Lap Swimming Positives

Perhaps the most running specific non-running exercise is that of deep-water pool running. Completely devoid of any weight bearing, pool running is an excellent way to work biomechanics similar to that of running without the increased risk of an additional pounding. Once you have found a local pool with a deep end, strap on a pool running vest or belt -- that can be found at most YMCAs or aquatic centers -- and get to work. I encourage pool runners to make their sessions largely interval- based workouts with large volumes of short intense bursts to elevate the heart rate. Unlike your typical weight bearing "on the road" run, that can take one-three days from which to recover, pool running's weightless nature makes the elevation of heart rate difficult (thereby necessitating interval sessions) and allows athletes to do back to back hard sessions with few repercussions. Our athletes here at ZAP will commonly do pool sessions with large quantities of 30-second, one-minute and 90-second sprints with only 15 to 30 seconds rest between the intervals. These sessions allow us to improve fitness significantly while we gradually raise our "on the road" running as well.

Negatives/possible detrimental effects

Running in water involves, by nature, some resistance, and through the years I have had many athletes complain of sore hip flexors as a result. In addition (despite the fact that it creates a more demanding session), those opting to not wear a belt during pool running will often begin the bad habit of hunching over in the water, a habit which has been known to carry over to dry land.

Stationary Biking

For six years we have used low resistance stationary bike riding as an alternative means of exercise here at ZAP Fitness. The feedback from our athletes who have used this modality has been increased flexibility and power in the hip flexors and hamstring attachments, and perhaps more importantly...improved leg speed and the cadence associated with it. Until recently there was little research-based evidence to suggest that this feedback was anything more than a ZAP Blue Ridge Mountain phenomena. A 2005 study undertaken at the New Zealand Institute of Sport may have proven we are not off our rockers here in the High Country. The study looked at a population segment of 30 distance runners of similar age and personal bests. Half of the group implemented two-three one-hour stationary bike spins and the other 15 ran 10-15 percent more volume with no stationary or non-running exercise whatsoever. The results (after a two- year study) found that the group that included "no-resistance" cycling had fewer injuries, greater improvements in strength and biomechanical efficiency, and most importantly had greater (faster) performances and more rapid improvements.

Negatives/Possible Detrimental effects

As with pool running, cycling can have the unintended effect of overdeveloping the quadriceps, not an advantageous quality for long distance running performance. This issue can be circumvented by avoiding those "hill crusher Level 7" programs on the computerized stationary and by making sure the cycling is completely non-resistance based i.e. just spin and keep your rotations at 180 revolutions per minute or higher.

Elliptical Machine

Bring on the health club! I realize that running purists around the South are likely loading their 12 gauges in anticipation of my next suggestion, but here goes: the elliptical machine is an excellent way to maintain and even improve your aerobic conditioning in a setting somewhat running specific. The elliptical machine allows the hips and hamstrings to fire in a similar motion to that of running with the exception of the follow through phase of the stride. In addition, recent research places the amount of overall impact on the musculature during elliptical workouts at between 35-40 percent of overall running impact -- making the elliptical an excellent "partially weight bearing" exercise.

Negatives/Possible Detrimental Effects

A normal stride pattern finds more than 75 percent of all runners landing on or near an invisible center line. In other words, we typically do not arrive at foot plant with our feet shoulder width apart as a hippo would but rather land with our feet directly in front of our body. The elliptical machine does not allow us to cross our stride naturally to this center line. As a result runners will commonly complain of sore hips and IT bands when engaging in large amounts of elliptical.

I want to be crystal clear to those who have come to the conclusion of this article. Nothing replaces running like running. Most of the best distance runners in the world run, run, and run some more -- but even those in the elite running community (along with its' coaches) are beginning to see the value and long term benefits of including some non-running exercise as part of a typical week of training, not only as a means of injury rehabilitation.

ZAP Fitness is a Reebok and NY Road Runners sponsored non- profit facility that supports post collegiate distance runners in Blowing Rock, NC. ZAP puts on adult running camps during the summer and is available for retreats all year. The facility has a state of the art weight room, a bio-lab for physiological testing and a 24-bed lodge. Coaches at the facility include two- time Olympic Trials Qualifiers Zika Palmer and Randy Ashley as well as head coach Pete Rea.

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