It's a creeping dread for many triathletes. You run and run and run and then you slowly, reluctantly accept that you've stopped improving. And you know that if you push yourself any harder you're going to pick up an injury.
Or perhaps you're already finding that you're injuring yourself more frequently than seems normal.
And even if you're lucky enough to avoid injury or dejection, you may simply be finding that your training runs have become boring. Whatever the situation, you need to do something to protect your body and rekindle your interest in training. And you can.
Recent research shows that supplementing, or even replacing, part of your running programme with other forms of exercise might be just what you need to avoid boredom, minimise injuries and perhaps even take your running to a new level.
One answer, and a possible way to improve your running time at the next triathlon, may be cross-training. Substituting some of your running with other cross-training enables you to complete extra endurance training with less strain on your running muscles and joints because, while you're using the same muscle groups, they're being worked in a different (non-weight-bearing) way.
And if you have reached a plateau, the added workouts can be done at a higher intensity, giving increased gains in maximal oxygen uptake. A high-intensity cycling session, for example, will help to develop increased lactate tolerance, buffering capacity (both of which improve your ability to function at your best during bursts of intense activity) and fuel resynthesis, without undergoing the high-impact stress on the legs from an interval-training workout.
If you're already performing two or three high-intensity running workouts each week, you should
not add more running workouts at that level. But adding intense stair-climbing or cycling sessions as an extra workout will help take you to a new level without the problems associated with extra sessions of high-intensity running.
Many of us have found out the hard way that the restricted range of motion associated with repetitive running makes it easy to overwork the same muscles and joints, often leading to injuries. Cross-training, if done correctly, will help other muscle groups to catch up, restoring the balance in your muscles.
But be careful you don't overemphasise one alternative activity - mix them up. One recent study found that cross-training might not reduce injury rates, and another indicates that while cycling can be a great choice for runners to relieve the repetitive stress of running that contributes to overuse injuries, it also noted that cycling can cause its own set of problems, particularly back pain.
By doing extra endurance work in low-impact or low-weight-bearing aerobic activities such as stair climbing, deep-water running or using the elliptical trainer, you can have an 'active rest', with virtually no stress on your joints, making these exercises ideal complementary activities for a triathlete.
A matter of principle
You've probably noticed that these exercises focus heavily on the legs and you may be wondering how
they can possibly act as rest for leg muscles. The answer is that cross-training appears to defy an important principle of exercise science - specificity.
This principle states that if you are to improve in a specific sport, you should practise that activity solely, and that by throwing similar activities into the mix you confuse your neuromuscular system, thus actually inhibiting your running progress. This explains why world-class athletes in one endurance sport, such as Tour de France cyclists, are not world-class marathon runners. Although elite cyclists exercise most of the muscle groups used in running, they do so in a very different way.
Plenty of research has been carried out in this area, with some results supporting the notion that some activities can improve performance in other sports, and others suggesting that cross-training may improve running performance, but not as effectively as a running-only programme.
One of the most promising studies that supports cross-training examined the effects of running four days a week compared with a combined cycling (two days a week) and running (two days a week) schedule over a five-week training period.
The results for both groups were almost identical - both groups improved their VO2 max significantly, and reduced their 5K run times by seven per cent (running only) and eight per cent (running and cycling). These results show that augmenting a running programme with cycling showed no drop in performance over a running-only programme.
A cycling-running study at the University of Toledo in the USA found similar results. The running-cycling group's 5K times improved by an average of 30 seconds, which was almost the same as the average reduction in the running-only group. The researchers concluded that adding extra running sessions provided no advantage over adding extra cycling sessions.
These and other similar studies indicate that certain activities, such as cycling, preserve and maintain running fitness while running is reduced or even temporarily cut out completely. This could prove especially useful at the end of a gruelling season; you could stop running for a while and switch to cross-training for a physical and mental break without fear of losing any of your hard-earned fitness. Other non-weight-bearing, ow- or no-impact activities such as pool-running and stair-climbing, may yield similar benefits.
Some activities, however, are not suitable cross-training substitutes for running. High-impact sports and sports that involve a lot of lateral motion, or stop-and-go movements, should be avoided. These include football, tennis, volleyball, rugby and some aerobics.
It's doubtful that cyclists could improve their cycling by adding running to their training schedules. But it appears that cycling has a positive impact on running. To be effective, you should cycle at a fast cadence - similar to your running cadence - at a resistance you can handle for intense workouts lasting 5-20 minutes.
There appears to be no correlation between swimming and improving running performance; however, running in place in water can help your running, or at least give your muscles a rest. This is done with a special belt or vest that helps to keep you afloat. One study found that runners who did deep-water running for six weeks experienced no drop in performance when they came to race again.
Step right up
Use the Stairmaster for a no-impact workout. Stair-climbing mimics uphill running, which consistently rates as a great way to improve VO2 max. The main criticism of stair-climbing is that it's hard to set a fast step cadence.
Elliptical fitness trainers
The elliptical or oval movement can be used backward or forward, providing the opposing muscle groups with some balance in the workout. It works the gluteals and hamstrings, two important muscle groups for runners. There's no research to demonstrate this improves running performance, but common sense suggests that if done at a high-enough intensity, elliptical training will not reduce your running fitness.
Most cross-training studies indicate that it's possible to improve your triathlon running performance by incorporating or substituting other aerobic activities into your training programme. You may also be able to squeeze in one or two high-intensity workouts, on top of your regular running workouts, without the added impact trauma to muscles and joints. This should lead to fewer injuries. But, as usual, the devil is in the details, so make sure your cross-training is done at a challenging level; it's no use if you use the sessions to take things easy, convincing yourself that you're exercising just because you're moving.