Can/should you cross-train while training for a half or full marathon?

  • Contributed by Jeff Henderson - MIT Head Coach

Cross-training for runners and walkers is a highly debated topic. Should you or shouldn’t you? If you do, how much cross-training should you do? The answers vary and it depends greatly on where you are with your training.

A great way to help avoid the monotony of full or half marathon training is to incorporate cross-training to your routine. Occasionally, heading out for a swim or bike instead of a recovery run can give you a needed mental respite from the miles and miles of training on your feet. In the unfortunate event of an injury, cross training can also serve as an excellent opportunity to keep your cardiovascular fitness intact while allowing time for your running or walking injury to heal.

The other element to look at when incorporating cross-training to your routine is your current fitness level and the amount of time you have spent exercising up to this point. If fitness has been a part of your life for some time now, and you exercise regularly, cross-training along side your half or full marathon training should not be much of an issue and will likely be of benefit.

If you are just beginning to incorporate fitness as a new way of life and have up to this point not worked out regularly, I would caution adding too much cross-training to your routine. This is simply so that you do not overwhelm your body with all sorts of exercising all at once. I cringe when I hear of people who begin a marathon training programs, boot camps, spinning classes and P90X classes all at the same time. While it is great that people are getting out there and embracing healthy, fit lifestyles, this is a recipe for disaster.

I’m sure you’ve seen countless NordicTrack machines sitting on the curb on trash day. There are equal numbers of unused gym memberships that often come as a result of people biting off more than their body cares to chew. Just be cautious. We want you to enjoy this process and not dread each upcoming workout. Cross-training can benefit any level of runner or walker if done in the proper amount and intensity.

Cross-training is a great way to build your non-running/walking muscles and can also serve as an excellent opportunity for an active recovery workout. Swimming and biking are great alternatives to running/walking that will help you improve your cardiovascular fitness without continuing to pound out mileage on your feet. Remember though, we are training to run or walk at half or full marathon. You’re not training to bike or swim your way to 13.1 or 26.2 miles.

Strength training is a great way to help reduce your chance of injury. By working muscles that you typically don’t use while running and walking you help your body find greater balance. Building non-running/walking muscles can also help take some of the pressure off your joints. Again, remember that you are training for a half or full marathon not a body building competition. Weight routines that benefit endurance athletes are typically low-weight, high-repetition workouts to help tone and define your muscles. Building too much muscle mass is counterproductive for half and full marathon training and can add stress to your joints that are already taking a pounding from the pavement.

Frequency of cross-training depends on your fitness level as well as your level of mental and physical fatigue. Also know that cross-training should, in most cases, be a supplement to your training, NOT a substitute. Beginners can supplement 4-5 days of running and walking with 2-3 days of cross-training. Depending on your schedule outside of your marathon training (you do have a life don’t you?!) doubling up workouts (i.e. going for a bike after a run or walk, or strength training in the morning with and evening run or walk) could be a good solution. More experienced runners and walkers can choose to substitute a rest day or easy workout for a low-intensity cross-training workout.

However you choose to implement cross-training to your routine just be sure that you aren’t over doing it. It is very easy for us to get wrapped up in our training and ignore signs that our body is sending. Try to pay attention to any aches and pains, mood swings, or fatigue. These are often signs of over-training. If you come to point in your training when you’re feeling mentally fatigued, try taking up a yoga course. Not only will it help you relax, but it can help your core strength and flexibility. If  you’re feeling fatigued a day or two of rest, or dropping a strength training session can make a huge difference. Remember that your training is not the only stress in your life. Extra hours or stress at work and all of your family activities accumulate in the same manner as your training. Take an afternoon off and enjoy a relaxing day at a park if necessary.  And don’t forget to frequently thank your family for allowing you to pursue your passion for completing a half or full marathon.

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