Creative Cross Training: We Aren't Just Runners
Isn’t it time we thought outside the box about what constitutes cross training? Step off that spin bike and consider these fun activities while still supporting your training!
By Michelle Forshner, @therunningveg
Runners are experts at juggling our running schedules, careers, families, and all things in between. You may laugh at this, thinking back to skipped runs and too many nights of take-out to make up for a crammed schedule, but we owe each other a pat on the back for continuing to stride towards staying in the game.
We don’t always identify as runners. Sometimes that identity doesn’t resonate with who we are, what we picture “runners” to be, or it isn’t as relevant as our other identities as a friend, parent, partner, and more. What else do you incorporate in your day to support your training? Beyond speedwork, hills, long runs, and our favorite easy conversational runs, there’s a slew of activities
that are not only fun -- and who doesn’t like fun -- but also continue to support your training goals as a runner.
What is Cross Training?
Cross training is any activity done to support a primary sport or activity, by providing strengthening, flexibility, complementary muscle training, or simply active recovery. For runners, we often incorporate traditional cross training activities such as strength training, cycling, or swimming. Cross training is generally a low-impact activity that provides muscular and cardiovascular benefits while allowing for reduced stress on joints and limbs. I won’t be the first
to raise my hand when asked who has been injured during a run and had to relegate a few weeks to the spin bike or pool!
Typical Cross-Training Activities:
● Cycling (indoor or outdoor)
● Hiking or walking
● Strength training
● Yoga and Pilates
Why should I do Cross Training?
Aren’t I busy enough? How do I have time for more activities! Think of it this way: cross training is not necessarily an addition, but rather a substitute on recovery weeks, busy work days, inclement weather, or an optional add-on in conjunction with a short scheduled run. Even in peak ultra-training season, I will cross train twice a week to support my running performance goals (not to mention my mental health). The best part of cross training is it adds flexibility to
your training plan, giving you options when running plans have to change.
Consider these benefits to adding cross training to your routine:
● Injury Prevention and Recovery: Working complementary muscle groups and increasing flexibility helps to reduce the chance of overuse injuries, an unfortunate byproduct of over-training with runners. Activities can be performed to relieve tension or strengthen opposite muscles to support our primary running performance muscles, while breaking the cycle of repetitive motion injuries. “Overuse injuries are the curse of the running life, a never-ending epidemic among pavement (and trail) pounders everywhere. Nevertheless, injuries aren't inevitable. Most overuse injuries can be prevented or at least prevented from returning,” Matt Fitzgerald says in Runner’s World.
● Active Recovery: Recover from a tough workout or race but still stay active. We’ve all found ourselves on the couch in front of a Netflix marathon a day or two following a tough run, and I can confidently say that sitting around made me much stiffer and sorer, and it took me longer to recover. If you are taking a full rest day make sure to wear your LilyTrotters compression socks to help with recovery and circulation!
● Flexibility: Snowstorm? Running buddy cancel on you? Your home is surrounded by aliens and you really don’t want to go outside? Turn on a yoga video or hit the spin bike in the garage.
● Boredom Prevention: Another easy run in the park today, huh? I’d rather stay in bed with a cup of coffee and cuddle my puppy. Who is with me? “Doing the same routine day in and day out without variation gets tedious and boring. This boredom can lead to finding excuses not to exercise,” Erin Carter writes from Michigan State University. "I know I am not alone in finding excuses when my training plan seems like Groundhog Day. Cross training is a refreshing change from the typical schedule!
● Improve Running Fitness (read: Get Faster): Regular cross training can actually make you a faster runner. Adding cross training can increase the amount of time a runner can train before becoming fatigued or one of our biggest fears: getting injured. “Better efficiency, more strength and power, and greater training volume without additional breakdown--these are the ways in which cross-training directly boosts running fitness,” Fitzgerald says in his Eight Benefits of Cross Training article.
● Fun! Cross training activities extend beyond the pool and bike - you may be surprised at how much fun you will have in a dance class, circus trapeze class, rock climbing gym, or barre class.
Creative Cross Training: Beyond the Bike
While cycling is an excellent cross training exercise, don’t let the absence of a bike or lack of access to spin classes deter you from cross training. The past year has witnessed a rise in more (unusual) cross training options for runners across the world, as we all had to get creative with changing home life demands (juggling homeschool, work-from-home Zoom calls, and a full running schedule, anyone?) city- and state-wide health measures, injuries, gym closures, and
even air quality (AQI) concerns (alas, fire season in the west!) have impacted our training plans.
Here's some unique options to consider when adding a little fun and spice into your training plan:
Dance Like No One’s Watching
I studied ballet and modern dance years ago while in college, but rarely had time to take classes later in life. As the pandemic hit in full-force with the added challenge of poor AQI in the Bay Area last fall, I started taking online dance classes from a local studio. Since we were all learning from our living rooms and kitchens, the classes were designed to work in small spaces or ad-hoc equipment (the back of a chair or counter top make an excellent ballet barre!). The Alonzo King Ballet Dance Center in San Francisco offers virtual and hybrid classes at different levels -- even several for “Absolute Beginners.” You don’t have to live locally to participate in a virtual dance class, and if you are feeling super shy you can turn off your camera and just follow along. The environment is so welcoming, you’ll build a lot of camaraderie if you do decide to
keep your camera on, and it’s fun to see the other (also beginning) dancers in the class.
If ballet is not your game, try modern or Horton - a particularly interesting modern form that leverages flat backs and lateral moves that will fire up your core and legs faster than most Pilates classes. It’s rhythmic, inspiring, and truly beautiful -- and you will feel the results! Alvin Ailey Extension offers virtual classes on Horton and other modern dance forms. There’s tons of class options if you enjoy Contemporary, Hip-Hop, Ballroom, Salsa, and even Country dance
styles if that is more up your alley. You can search the MindBody app for schools and classes in any dance form near you!
Benefits: Full-body strengthening with an emphasis on core, foot, and ankle muscles (all those muscles that keep you stable on rocky terrain - this is a must!); Toned legs; Increased dexterity in the foot, ankle, and hips; Improved balance and flexibility.
What to Expect: A welcoming class with other adults (this isn’t your 6-year-old’s ballet class), with a slow start on basics, positions, and exercises. The class will progress to combinations and floor work, with a light cool down at the end. Comfortable workout clothes (tutus not required), bare feet or socks, and a positive attitude are all that’s required! If you have carpeting in your house, I recommend socks so feet slide easier on the floor. I’m obsessed with wearing
my Lily Trotters over-the-calf socks for ballet class when dancing on carpet - plus they provide excellent arch support!
Take Me to the Circus
Who didn’t dream of joining the athletes of Cirque de Soleil as a kid (or adult!)? Circus classes are gaining traction beyond after-school children’s programs and into adult programming. Circus schools offer classes ranging from beginner to advanced in a range of practice areas, including:
Aerials (static trapeze, silks, lyra), Acrobatics (flying trapeze, straps), Flexibility and Contortion, Circus Conditioning (think of this as your Circus HIIT class), and more. While some schools will offer virtual or hybrid classes for their strength and conditioning classes, these classes are best enjoyed in-person. Check out studios with strong beginner adult classes like The Circus Project in Portland, Circus Center in San Francisco, Esh Circus Arts in Boston, or the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts. You can also search the MindBody app for schools and classes near you!
Benefits: Like dance classes, expect to build a strong core, increased flexibility, toned arms and legs, and perhaps a chance to conquer your fear of heights!
What to Expect: Beginner classes are welcoming and start slow by introducing the various apparatus studied, warm-ups and conditioning exercises, and opportunities to try short combinations on a static trapeze or silks. Classes are kept small so each student receives attention and support from the instructor, which is particularly helpful as an absolute beginner.
Wear comfortable clothing you can move in, that won’t get caught on equipment (avoid anything baggy or loose-fitting); most studios may also require socks for some of the work. I have worn my LilyTrotters compression socks to circus classes and find them super comfy and supportive for trapeze and lyra (hoop) lessons!
If you have access to a beach or man-made wave park, try bodyboarding or surfing. This cardio workout engages key muscle groups in your legs, glutes, and core, and also provides a powerful upper body workout while playing in the waves. If surfing is too extreme, try bodyboarding or body surfing. Bodyboarding uses a smaller foam board that you grip with the front of your body, kicking with your legs (no standing required!). Body surfing requires zero boards, though fins are helpful.
Benefits: Cardiovascular fitness from paddling; Full-body strength encompassing core, upper and lower body; Increased balance - particularly with surfing. These activities can also help improve flexibility: “During surfing our bodies twist and turn in different directions due to the force of the waves... This stretching keeps your body flexible and improves your body’s mobility
and body balance,” Ann Hawkins says in the article Top 5 Health Benefits of Surfing
What to Expect: Beginners can rent bodyboards, surfboards, and wetsuits (if needed for your climate) from local surf stores and sporting goods suppliers. Classes for beginners abound along the coast, with sessions on weekends, early mornings, or late afternoons. Don’t want to pay for classes? Rent a bodyboard for a few bucks and just go play in the waves! Remember that you can try body surfing without any equipment. Check out this YouTube video for how to start.
Incorporating cross training into your regular training plan not only provides benefits as an active recovery tool and injury prevention strategy, it also supports increased cardiovascular fitness, strength training, flexibility and dexterity improvements and a fun change of pace from traditional running training plans. Whether you hit the bike, pool, studio, trapeze, or beach, active cross training will support your fitness goals and give you a fun outlet to explore a new skill.