Orange, Ca. – As I sit here in sunny, warm la la land, far removed from the colder climes of Syracuse, the Winter Olympics are about to begin in Salt Lake City. Watching the pre-competition build-up, especially the cross-country skiing stories, reminds me of how often I am asked about cross training.
Running magazines for years have promoted the concept of cross training as a means of both preventing injury and enhancing performance. Since the focus of this column is the former, I’ll only spend a minute to contest the latter by mentioning the principle of sport specificity. This is the notion that the most effective training method for a particular task is to practice that particular task. In other words, if you want to improve as a runner, your training should focus on – running. The claim that cross-country skiing, weight lifting, swimming, biking, or anything else other than putting one foot in front of the other will in some way improve your 10k time is questionable.
Regarding the question of whether cross training helps to minimize or eliminate the risk of running-related injury, I have to admit the answer is even more uncertain and the evidence conflicting. If there is to be something gained from cross training in this respect, it would be due to the fact that most runners who cross train do so at the expense of running, thereby decreasing their overall mileage per week. This in itself lessens the risk of injury by preventing overtraining. Although the overall hours of training may be the same, the number devoted to each activity is divided, thereby reducing the stress to any one muscle group performing a particular movement repetitively.
The problem however, as I see it, is that most running injuries are caused by improper movement patterns. These, in turn, are primarily the result of muscle imbalances somewhere in the lower extremity chain (which in actuality includes the lumber spine and pelvis). Muscle imbalances (ex: recruitment of the hamstrings to extend the knee rather than the opposing quadriceps) can be caused by postural faults and habits or by over-development of a particular muscle group via another activity that then persists during running, creating a movement pattern that may be improper for that task.
The potential for this scenario arising as a result of weight lifting has been covered previously (Article #49), but I think the same general lessons can apply to other athletic endeavors popular among runners as a means of cross training. Number one among these is the need to avoid jumping into a new form of exercise as if you have done it for years. Just because you are in shape for running does not mean you are prepared to bike, ski, elliptically train, etc. at an advanced intensity. Start easy, just as you did when you first took up running.
Another thing to keep in mind is this: if you start to experience a problem when running that you never had before, and it is shortly after starting to cross train, think seriously about the potential link between these two events. Back off the other exercise for a while and see if your running problem doesn’t improve.