How (and why) to cross-train

You may have noticed that, for a running blog, a lot of my posts are about doing things other than running.

Ever since a torn hip labrum in October 2007 sidelined me for several months, I’ve been the queen of injury-prevention, icing and resting and elevating and generally being a good kid before I get hurt, not after.

For me, being the queen of injury-prevention also means following the FIRST plan, which is designed by two exercise physiologists and marathoners who noticed their marathon times got better, not worse, when they ran less and cross-trained more while training for a triathlon. They advocate running only three days per week, cross-training three and taking one day off. The general idea is this: Your hard days are HARD, but the cross-training days give your muscles time to rebuild to be stronger and more efficient than they would be if you logged a few junk miles (how do you know? Because two smarty-pants exercise physiologists tell you so).

I followed the FIRST half-marathon training plan leading up to the National Half Marathon on March 21. In the past, I’d followed plans that call for five days of running, but that didn’t specify a pace or goal for each run. I ran my best time by several minutes in March, 1:49:19. More importantly, I staved off the injuries my body seems so prone to, and didn’t feel a lick of burnout the whole time. I truly looked forward to every running day (OK, fine, I dreaded speed work. But who doesn’t?).

My friend Kaveh, who’s training for the Marine Corps Marathon with me, asked a really good question about all this: What counts as cross-training? The FIRST guys are actually really specific about that, which I learned only after reading their helpful and entertaining book, Runner’s World Run Less, Run Faster. You cross-train at least 30 to 45 minutes, at a pretty good clip. You do not do the elliptical machine, as that stresses many of the same muscles running does, according to the FIRST guys. Some FIRST-approved ideas:

  1. Cycling
  2. Swimming(my personal favorite – use a pull buoy to really give your legs a rest)
  3. Rowing (confused about how? Read my post about it here)

Kaveh asked if lifting counts, and noted that when he stopped lifting while training for the New York Marathon, injuries descended.This is an apt observation, and the FIRST guys highly advocate strength training for all your major muscle groups to fend off injuries (check out my injury-prevention workout from physical therapy here). That said, lifting does NOT count as cross-training in their book, and is something to be done above and beyond other cross-training.

Here’s what my past week looked like following the FIRST plan. It just so happens that I didn’t take an off-day in this seven-day period, but know that squeezing in an off day is usually NOT a problem for me.

  • Monday: Lift one hour, hard, mostly legs. Swim 3,000 yards.
  • Tuesday: Run roughly 7 miles with Pacers. The main run of about 5.4 miles was at what I imagine to be my tempo pace. I count the run to and from the store (about 1.6 miles there and back) as a warm-up and cool-down.
  • Wednesday: Swim 3,000 yards. Lift 30 minutes, mostly legs.
  • Thursday: Modified track workout that included 4X800. I also ran about 3 miles on the road, sort of accidentally, while trying to calibrate my NikePlus.
  • Friday: Swim 3,000 yards.
  • Saturday: Swim 3,000 yards.
  • Sunday: I typically would have done a 10-mile run, but did a 7-miler with 4X800s in the middle to test my NikePlus calibration, and to ensure we made it to my cousin’s Easter brunch on time.

As a side note: Even readers who aren’t training for a race may enjoy following the general principles of the FIRST plan. It calls for running at a purposefully hard pace, both in the form of intervals and tempo runs, which is great for burning calories and improving overall fitness, as well as improving race times.

Got a favorite form of cross-training? Or a strength-training move you’re sure has fended off injuries? Share your knowledge by posting a comment below.


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3 responses to “How (and why) to cross-train

  1. Ye Olde Deskmate

    Ok, so seriously, I’m impressed…and this is a really informative, but I have to say, you ran 3 miles “sort of accidentally”??? Er, that’s kind of psycho, like John Hinckley, Jr. psycho. Props…all the same.

    BTW, Does the FIRST plan have any advice for staving off injury, specifically, ankle/foot injury incurred as a result of carousing?

    • FIRST says you should shuddup, and that sometimes, people sprain their ankles without the help of carousing (I just happen to not be one of those people, if we’re talking about June 2007).

      But seriously, glad you liked the post, and thanks for the comment!

  2. Ye Olde Deskmate

    To quote the old Zen master of the Times-Picayune school of Kung Fu…

    “Fair enough.”

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