Cross Purposes

With the right cross-training workouts, you can stay running-fit when running isn't an option


Posted: 31 August 2004
by Ed Eyestone

No matter the weather, the dedicated runner will not be diverted from the never-ending pursuit of athletic improvement. Whether it is blistering heat or driving rain and wind, we all get out and pound the streets.

At least that’s the theory. The practice can be rather different when you look out of the window and savour the prospect of either wilting in the heat or half-drowning in the rain.

There are times when even the most dedicated runner needs a cross-training alternative that will maintain fitness without the risk of hypothermia.

And injured runners well know that cross-training can help maintain fitness and sanity.

That said, I have mixed feelings about cross-training. At its best it can help you maintain your performance, but at its worst, cross-training can be a waste of time. It all depends on what you do and how you do it.

Cross-Training Hierarchy

Most gyms offer a number of cross-training options that can give you a good cardiovascular workout. But some are better than others for maintaining a runner’s fitness. Here’s how I rank the options available at most gyms in terms of their effectiveness for cross-training a runner, from best to worst:

  1. Elliptical trainer
  2. Deep-water running
  3. Cross-country ski machine
  4. Stairclimber
  5. Stationary bicycle
  6. Rowing machine

My rankings are based on each activity’s relevance to running. The closer the activity is to running, in terms of muscles used and aerobic systems taxed, the higher its ranking. If your goal is to maintain peak running fitness through cross-training, concentrate on those activities closest to the top of the hierarchy. You’ll also want to keep the following five principles in mind.

1 Cross-training is no holiday
If you’re following the plot of the soap opera on TV, you’re not working hard enough. If your shirt isn’t ringing wet with sweat, you need to increase your intensity.

2 Every day is a hard day
One lesson you can learn from watching the Tour de France is that those guys are in the saddle for hours, and still do it all over again the next day. The non-weight-bearing nature of most cross-training lets you go hard several days in a row.

3 Go longer
Most cross-training requires 1.5 to two times the duration to accomplish the same training effect as running. So if you normally run 30 minutes a day, try cross-training for 45 to 60.

4 Go faster
On most machines, you can alter the intensity by changing the resistance or speed. To more closely mirror running, set a lower resistance and use a faster turnover of 85 to 100 revolutions per minute (rpms) on a bike, or 180 to 200 steps per minute on an elliptical trainer.

5 Work your way up from injury
The sensible thing is to work your way up the cross-training hierarchy as you heal. I coach an athlete named Barry who spent the last three winters cross-training because of injuries. Barry’s last injury was a sprained ankle that limited him to exercising with an arm-crank ergometer (a machine you “pedal” with your arms). As he improved, he tried deep-water running, followed by the elliptical trainer. Once his ankle was strong enough for running, Barry hit the treadmill for some easy running on its cushioned deck.

We should all note Barry’s definition of effective cross-training: “Compared with cross-training, running is a piece of cake.”

The Next Best Thing

These workouts, which range from 30 to 45 minutes, are ideal for cross-training runners. Include a warmup and cooldown, and choose the activity highest on the hierarchy above to most closely approximate running.
  • 30 minutes at a comfortable to hard effort (roughly equal to a tempo run)
  • 4 x 5 minutes hard (but not all-out) with three-minute recoveries
  • 3 x 10 minutes at a comfortable to hard effort with five-minute recoveries
  • 30 seconds hard, 30 seconds easy for 30 minutes
  • 8 x 2 minutes all-out with three-minute recoveries

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