A Debate! Is Cross-Training Beneficial or Not?

I recently came across this article, “Benefits of Cross-Training May End Before the Finish Line” by Gina Kolata at NYTimes.com.  Since I am training for a marathon right now, trying to keep up my yoga practice and find time to do the other things in life I enjoy, like this blog,  cross-training isn’t a high priority right now.  That doesn’t mean I’m content with that, quite the contrary.  I’m racked with guilt about it.  I’ve always been told that cross-training is good and helps to prevent injuries.  It also gives the muscles you regularly use a rest but allows us to maintain, if not build our endurance.  After training for NYC Marathon in 2009 when I injured my IT band and was forced to spend the last 7 weeks on the elliptical and was thrilled by a 8 or 10 mile run that was pain-free,  I vowed to make this training experience different.  For Chicago Marathon which is on October 9th I have been running 3 days a week.  I do an easy shorter run, a speed workout and then a long run.  I practice yoga 3 days a week and I had hoped to cross-train on the other day.  But I’m just too tired and sore to find the time to fit that in.  It seems more like a chore. So I’ve been running and doing yoga and resting.  It’s working, I’m getting fast. So fast I may Boston Qualify.

Basically, the question of cross-training or not comes down to goals.  If your goal is to run faster and make a personal best or a qualifying time then you should run.  If your goal is to cycle and become faster and stronger than you should cycle.  Doing the elliptical may mimic running or riding the stationary bike may feel like biking but it is not the same as actually running or biking.  You don’t use the same muscles as when you are on the pavement running.  It’s great to maintain any cardiovascular fitness but it’s limited to what it can help build.  To build cardiovascular fitness you need to be running and doing speed work or long runs.  For cycling it may be long rides, and hill work.  Any proof that cross-training will help prevent injuries has not been seen.  If you run, your likely to get some running injury.  If you don’t want a running injury don’t run.  I’ve also heard from coaches that running injuries occur to show us we have a deficiency in muscle strength or a flaw in our stride.  We become aware of it, go to physical therapy to heal and strengthen it and we continue in the future to keep that area strong so the injury won’t return.  It may be awful when you have it, but usually you come out a better runner or athlete on the other side of it.

If your goal isn’t to be a Boston Qualifier or to ride a century race but rather to improve your overall health and fitness then yes, you should cross-train.  In this case it will help improve the overall fitness of your body, and in the long run prevent overuse injuries if you continually did the same type of exercise.  You should focus on cardiovascular fitness, strength, balance, and stretching.  To help improve overall fitness, cross-training is a must.  On that note, I would say that if you are a runner but generally don’t train for races in the winter because perhaps you may live in New England and don’t prefer to run in the dark and snow and don’t particularly love treadmills, like me then you should definitely cross-train.  I try to run one or two days in the winter and spend the rest of my workout days on the elliptical, lifting weights, taking yoga and trying new classes like body pump, Zumba and others.   When spring comes I’m in pretty great shape and after a few weeks I’m back to my running self.  I’d suggest that someone looking to improve their health and fitness should do the same.

What the study did recommend for everyone, including athletes training for a specific sport is weight training.  They found that in sport specific athletes, like runners and cyclists it helped to build overall strength and allowed runners to keep running with less difficulty when they were tired.  The idea is that lifting weights helps to build supporting muscle fibers so they will support the larger muscles when they become fatigued. Makes sense to me.  It also helped them to increase their speed.  Also makes sense to me.  I guess, I should start hitting the gym and doing some squats.  For those of you who are looking to improve your overall health, you should definitely start making strength training part of your routine.  It will not only tone muscles but will help prevent common injuries in the back and other areas.  Plus I’ve read it helps speed up weight loss.  A major bonus if that is also a goal for you.  So go on everyone, let’s start doing some squats!

Since my current goal is to focus on marathon training and Boston qualifying I’m going to give myself a pass for not cross-training.  On days when I feel guilty I’m going to try to hit the gym and lift some weights.  I can assure you however that I will be cross-training as soon as Chicago Marathon has come and gone.  Assess your goals and form a plan that works for you.  Be sure to include some variety because it is the spice of life but also to avoid injury and only cross-train when it makes sense for your goals and fit in to your plan!

As for this debate, what are your thoughts? Do you cross-train? How often? Do you lift weights? Do you lift and run when training for a race or just run? Let me know what you think!

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