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Monday, January 30, 2012

Ask MGBG: Crosstraining, Part I

A recent email from a loyal reader inspired this post. She told me that she really enjoyed my post 100-Up Challenge? How about a 100-Squat Challenge? She had just one question: "What's a squat?"

Sometimes I forget that not everybody has the same background in fitness as I do. I developed my love of fitness through strength training. I spent my time learning everything I could about it, by reading articles and books and studies. I lifted weights for over a decade before discovering my love of running. That's my context.

I bet a lot of you discovered your love of fitness through running first. Running is your sport, and therefore it's what you know. If you've done it for a while, you probably know a lot about it. But other sports are probably somewhat foreign to you.

And in the case of strength training, you might be a little intimidated. It's pretty easy to feel that way. Everyone in the strength training industry is always trying to sell you some kind of voodoo nonsense like the Shake Weight to get you pumped up without any effort. It can be hard to figure out what works and what doesn't; especially if you're mostly interested in strength as a means to become a better runner.

I get emails a lot from folks asking me about crosstraining, and whether it can help make them a better runner. So much so that I thought now would be a good time for an "Ask MGBG" on the topic. Here goes!

What kind of crosstraining should I be doing?

I would loosely define "crosstraining" as any activity that you do that is different from your primary sport. That doesn't just mean strength training. If you're a runner, and you go biking...congrats, you just cross-trained.

However, this post is about crosstraining that is effective for boosting running performance. Therefore, when I talk about crosstraining for the remainder of this post, I'm only referring to strength training. I think that doing other sports like biking or swimming is great for variety, but it's not entirely clear that it provides any tangible benefit to running performance (and since lawyer's reference things to make points, here's my reference!). On the other hand, it's pretty universally accepted that strength training improves performance in endurance sports.

So if your purpose in crosstraining is just to have fun, experience something different, or give those running muscles a break, by all means take a bike ride. Or a walk. Dance like an idiot to one of those Wii games I always see on TV. But if your purpose is improving your running, you need to hit the weight room.

Should I do P90X? Or Crossfit Endurance? Or Primal Blueprint? Or bicep curls on bosu balls?

I get a lot of questions about whether someone should start doing a specific plan like Crossfit Endurance. I always tell them that I think CFE is a great program. But it is not designed to be everything to every runner. No strength training program can do that.

There are as many different strength training programs out there as there are attractive people with six packs in tank tops trying to sell them to you. They are all apparently the get ripped quick solution to weight loss, fitness, and getting laid. They are not one size fits all people. Whether something like P90X or Crossfit or any other kind of training is right for you depends both on who you are and what you're looking to do with your training.

We all have different running goals. And for each person comes a different strength training that will be most beneficial. You wouldn't chose a Hal Higdon 10K training program to train for a marathon would you? So why are you picking your strength program out at random and hope it magically benefits your running? It's not that simple people.

Here's an example to illustrate what I mean.  I often get emails from folks asking whether they should start a round of P90X as a way to gain muscle mass and strength.  I tell them this.  P90X is a series of high-intensity interval workouts that involve high repetitions of exercises with low weights.  The program was designed to help you lose weight quickly, not gain muscle mass.  Though you will gain muscle initially, that's largely because you were a weak bastard before and you'd gain mass by lifting practically any object repetitively.  But eventually you need to increase the weight you lift in order to keep making progress.  P90X doesn't accomodate that. 

That person is trying to use the wrong tool for the job.  Same thing goes for selecting a strength program to go along with your running. 

Okay then, how do I choose a crosstraining program?

Well first, I suggest that you don't just pick a workout plan like P90X or CFE and follow it blindly to the letter. The reason why is this: just like each of our goals are different, each of our bodies are different too.

Specifically, we all have our own strengths and weaknesses. Some of us have a lot of muscular strength, but not much endurance. Some of us are the opposite. People have both weaker and stronger body parts. You can't train ask all of those people to do the same workout of the day and see progress.

In deciding which strength plan is right for you, you should take a tip from the world-renowned Westside method. Westside gym has produced some of the best powerlifters in the world. Their training philosophy is in part to focus on a person's weaknesses. You are only as strong as your weakest body part. So the strength training that is most effective is that which strengthens that weakest link.

It's also the program that takes into account your goals. Your weakness could be speed. But if you're running your first marathon, you might not care about that so much. You might just want to finish comfortably. A good strength program targets your weaknesses while keeping your goals in mind.

So how do I target my running weaknesses in this way?

In my opinion, long-distance running involves a combination of speed, muscular endurance, coordination, and aerobic capacity. That is, the ability to go fast, without your legs failing on you, without tripping over your feet, and without your lungs exploding. Each has a particular strength training that seems to provide the most benefit (except for coordination, which is more form training).

I wrote not to long ago about the benefits of heavy weight training on running speed. It also seems to be best for muscular endurance (link that explains why very nicely). If your speed is lacking or you find your muscles getting tired near the end of a race, you could probably benefit most by doing 5 sets of 5 reps of compound leg exercises like back squats and deadlifts.

On the other hand, high intensity interval training seems to have the most effect on a person's aerobic (or work) capacity. If you are out of breath halfway through a run, you could probably benefit more from doing 100 air squats as fast as you can.

Then of course, you have to temper that with your running goals. If you lack aerobic capacity, but are training for a 5K, you might want to shuck the HITT in favor of speed work. If you're training for a marathon, that's a different story.

So when choosing a workout program, find out a little bit about the methods behind it.  Then select the one that best fits your goals.  Or create your own!  I'll discuss the basics of how to do that in Part II.  Stay tuned citizens!

To be continued...


  1. Another well thought out post. Just like to add my 2 cents (but its Canadian so maybe worth 1.8 US). You make some valid points. Crosstraining for runners all really depends on where a person is starting from. If you haven't been doing any strength training then P90X or CF could help.

    But I have an issue with CFE as a method to train runners. If you're training merely to complete a distance then CFE may be a viable method. But if you want to compete (even against yourself), the CFE methodology is seriously flawed with some major misunderstanding of exercise physiology esp. when it comes to endurance training.

    Steve Magness did a great job of explaining it so I'll just refer to his blog as I agree with him: http://www.scienceofrunning.com/2012/01/crossfit-endurance-tabata-sprints-and.html

  2. I agree with you about CFE Curb. I've seen Steve's post knocking CFE a few times. I don't agree with some of what he says in the blog post as I don't think he fully understands the program. But I agree with his general conclusion that the best way to be an elite runner is with an Arthur Lyland-style training program. The trial of miles.

    Of course, I'm not all that interested in being an elite runner, and I don't think most people should be. I recommend strength training to my coaching clients in a way that makes them well-balanced and injury-free.

  3. C'mon, man. I know you have a Shake Weight there next to your arsenal of slosh tubes and kettle balls. Admit it.

    Seriously though. What if I really don't have a goal in mind (like a marathon or 10K). I run 3-4 times per week and just want to be generally fit in an all-around sort of way. Are push ups, air squats, and pull ups adequate in addition to the running?

    Also, after reading one of your posts from a while back (the one about the Hundred Up), I started doing a set of pre-run air squats along with some lunges to help loosen up my hips. They really seem to work.

  4. I would point you toward a program that more deals with general physical preparedness (GPP). Something that is constantly varied and exercises all aspects of fitness. Usually people do Crossfit in that situation, but there are plenty of other programs out there that prepare you for the "unknown and unknowable".

    Also, air squats are the prescription for pretty much anything. I think they even cure cancer.



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