Monday, January 28, 2013

Cross Training and Core Training

This might be a misunderstood topic for recreational/non-elite runners. I commonly here runners say to one another that we should "listen to our bodies". But what does that really mean? I generally find that means to know when to run or to rest for most runners. But there is a third option -- the need to include core and strength training into our training plans. Most runners I know don't want to include that stuff into a plan until they are hurt and have too. Cross training requires hard work and discipline and is not associated with the same level of euphoria as running. Failure to do these things should bring pause to the effectiveness of our training the same way that inability to hit a key run does. Many times rest is not the answer to injury, at least not after a period of dealing with the symptoms of injury (pain).

Why We Need It

There are lots of reasons that we need to cross train and strength train. Some of them are very obvious. Other are not quite as obvious. The biggest reason to do these things is to fix/moderate and prevent imbalances. Running moderate to high volume miles will definitely show you where your imbalances lie. Sometimes imbalances are a result of, or compounded by, poor form, but that is a whole other conversation. No matter where they originate, training the body can keep them at bay. The most common imbalance in runners is weak hips and glutes (core). That has a catastrophic impact in our postures, stride, and form, usually manifesting as knee, IT Band, or ankle injuries. Another common imbalance is muscle that are too stiff (particularly in the plantar fascia, hips, and hamstrings). With proper maintenance, these things can be corrected.

The second best reason to do cross and core training is to increase strength. I commonly hear the response (excuse) that runners don't need "big muscles", but that is a pretty naive response to the true benefit of strength training. Athletically, lean muscle mass is always superior to fat, even if it means adding a few pounds. Unless you purposefully do so, you are unlikely to gain more than a few pounds from some targeted strength training. Strength training and body building are two different disciplines. Strength training becomes increasingly important as we age -- our muscle atrophy and shrink -- and with high amounts of training. The need to strength train early in cycles or in the "off season" is probably under appreciated. Hard training cycles can cannibalize and tear down our muscles. Another thing to remember is that strength training your whole body -- not just your legs -- benefits you. For example, your upper back and chest play an important role in good posture. Of course, as I mentioned above, your hips and glutes are the most important muscles to train.

How We Can Implement It

I am sure most runners agree that more cross training is needed. If you are like me, you find the whole topic a little bit intimidating because it feels like there is so much to do in so little time. Much of that is the need for publications and other media sources that need to drive hits to their site or subscribers to their magazines, so they are always looking for the new "it" thing to do. The truth is that most runners could benefit substantially from about two hours a week of cross training built into a few short workouts chosen from two dozen exercises. Two dozen sounds like a lot, but that includes core, strength, stretching, physical therapy, etc...

Planning for these cross training workouts can be hard because there is so much to do and we often don't understand the specific need we are targeting. When we plan training runs, there is a specific purpose to each run. Cross training should be the same way. I am finding that is best to put each exercise into a different category: Core, Strength, Stretch/PT, and Core/Coordination. These categories are somewhat arbitrary, but it helps to break things down. Note that the word "core" encompasses a huge array of muscles from below your chest to your upper things, be careful with that term. The Core category I have defined is mostly abs with maybe a little bit of hips and upper thighs (Ab Ripper X for example). Strength refers to true weight lifting, particularly Olympic movements like squat, bench, and dead lift. Stretch/PT is a category that encompasses a broad spectrum of things like foam rolling, light strength training like clams, etc... And Core/Coordination are strength training exercises, but they are generally more body-weight oriented like Yoga, P90x, etc... These exercises are often done on one leg and require core stability and balance. That makes them extremely useful in running. In a separate post, I will put the exercises that I classify in each category.

There is no category that is superior to another. They each have designed place in training. Some need to take precedence if we are injured or depending on where we are in the training cycle. As a general rule, I try to aim for one workout (30 - 60 minutes) each week focused on Strength training and one focused on Core/Coordination. Early in a cycle or in the off season it would probably be best to push the Strength category a bit harder, possibly doing that twice a week. And later in a training cycle it might be advisable to back off of Strength in favor of more Core/Coordination work. This is a term often used in training called Periodization. Don't ever quit doing one category over another, just be sure to change the emphasis where it makes sense in your plans.

The workouts in the Core and Stretch/PT categories can be thought of as more "maintenance". I aim to do these workouts frequently, but in shorter workouts (15 - 30 mins). For example, I like to do these maintenance workouts about three times a week, but I put a heavy emphasis on foam rolling and stretching after a hard workout. To "find time" for these, I generally just grab a Yoga mat and a foam roller while I am watching TV. If we can find time to post on Facebook 12 times a day, then we can find time for a 15 minute foam rolling and stretching session.

The last bit of advice that I will leave you with is somewhat specific and I find difficult to implement. Technically, it would be best to keep with a hard/easy pattern in all of your training. We are very familiar with this when it comes to running. But the only way I can see to incorporate this into cross training would be to do double workouts on hard days. For example, do a tempo workout in the morning and a Strength session in the afternoon. What I tend to do instead is do Strength and Core/Coordination on my "off days" from running. I think this violates the hard/easy rule to a degree, but it is one compromise that I have made to squeeze it all in.

Here is what I do now:
DayRunCross Train
MondayOffFive or Six Strength Exercises, Core or Stretch/PT in the afternoon
TuesdayLight Quality (Progression)Off
WednesdayRecoveryCore or Stretch/PT
FridayOffFive or Six Core/Coordination Exercises, Core or Stretch/PT in the afternoon
SundayLong or EasyCore or Stretch/PT

This is probably more ideal:
DayRunCross Train
MondayOffCore or Stretch/PT
TuesdayLight Quality (Progression)Five or Six Strength Exercises
WednesdayRecoveryCore or Stretch/PT
ThursdaySpeedworkFive or Six Core/Coordination Exercises
FridayOffCore or Stretch/PT
SundayLong or EasyCore or Stretch/PT

And now you can move on and read Cross Training in Action, part two of this blog post.

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