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The truth about cross training for Runners

Many athletes throw around the word “cross training” as any form of exercise during marathon training. For instance, ‘weight training’ is not a form of cross training for runners. Don’t get me wrong, weight training is a very important aspect of running. Weights strengthen the muscles and connective tissue to prevent injury. But an important understanding of cross training for runners, is to call the exercise as it is!

Cross training is Running specific. 

Trail running a half marathon in Oregon, I had anticipated perfect conditions. Slight downhill and soft dirt to alleviate the right knee pain I generally get after 10 miles in. The weather was set to be mid 40’s, so I had planned to strip layers along the course. With perfect conditions I made a bad choice to follow a pacer for an under 2 hour half. I hadn’t cross trained at such a pace, so it’s no surprise at mile 10 I was limping along.

A few years later I incorporated Orangetheory fitness into my training plan. Arizona had similar perfect conditions for running my half marathon, downhill and cool weather. I surpassed my personal record (still not under two hour mark, but closer). I thought my success was from ‘cross training by adding weights’ into my routine. After taking the Road Runner’s club of America certification course, I understood. The running specific cross training improved my performance. (Think elliptical, stationary bike, rower, swimming). These exercises mimic the running form to improve the cardiorespiratory system.

Supplemental activities improve strength, flexibility and mobility.  

cross train

Supplemental activities should be incorporated DAILY for about 10-15 minutes to increase an athlete’s overall ability. These are not meant to be fatiguing, so they can be built into daily habits. If you have tight hip flexors from running, practice yoga for stretching. If your pace is declining, use core exercises and weight lifting for strength. Supplemental exercises are a necessary addition to add to marathon training, but call them for what they are! Yoga is yoga, weights are weights, cross training is running specific. With supplemental exercises it’s important to mention, use caution with ‘ball sports’ i.e. baseball, football. These activities come with risk of injury and delay in training.

Now how do we apply cross training and supplemental exercises into our daily routines?

Atomic Habits

An atomic habit is intentionally changing one small thing daily to form a healthy habit or break an unhealthy habit. I’ve always imagined how strong I could be if I would just workout everyday. It sounded simple enough. But I could never quite establish a habit that lasted. Generally after a New Year’s resolution, my ambition would fade and I’d find myself going lengths of time without working out, yet again. James Clear explains how to apply strategies to create daily habits that last.

Habits are the brains way to reduce energy expenditure.

Our willpower is actually limited each day. We only get a certain amount of energy for decisions, therefore habits are the brains way to reduce energy expenditure. Repetition is required to establish habits. Think of the quantity of runs as opposed to the quality.  Even a bad run can improve your athletic ability. Two beginning principles to forming new healthy habits include three layers of forming a new habit and Habit stacking.   Now let’s apply this to running and training for a marathon.

We all start out as novice runners at some point. New to the sport, eager to learn and test your limits. Because I wasn’t particularly fast, I let myself think that I was not a runner for nearly a decade. I believed I was not fast enough to be considered a runner. Even though I ran a half marathon every single year since 2012- and even completed a full marathon in 2013.

There are three layers of developing a new habit to become a runner.

  1. Goals are the results you wish to achieve. I fulfill my goal of completing a half marathon each year. But the timing in which I cross the finish line varies greatly. My half marathon personal best is 2:02 and then other races took over 3 hours to finish. Because initially, each run did not focus on the next layer of developing a habit.
  2. The process is the second way to develop a new habit. Let’s start with that same goal to finish a half marathon each year. Now let’s incorporate a training plan. This gives me an outline of how many runs I should be completing each week, what supplemental exercises to add and gives you structure. However, there were many times I ignored the training plan process because “I just didn’t feel like running today”. This leads to the third, and deepest layer of habit forming.
  3. The key to building a new habit is to change your identity. Focusing on your identity asks the pivotal question, who do you wish to become? I AM A HALF-MARATHON RUNNER, therefore I run. Again, this took me over a decade and running hundreds of miles per year. With the guidance of reading Atomic Habits to realize, I am a Runner.

Habit Stacking

We’ve now established, after layering our motives, that to develop a new habit we acknowledge it is part of our identity. We are runners. So how do you now incorporate running into your daily routine with ease? Clear describes a strategy called habit stacking. Rather than creating a new habit at a set time, stack it with a current habit to limit the brain’s energy expenditure.

Start by writing down your day: wake up, drink a glass of warm lemon water, shower, brush teeth, get dressed, go to work. Now habit stack the healthy habit goal you’d like to include daily. For me this last year, I really wanted to increase my mindfulness and balance.

So I took my current habitual day and stacked a new habit. Now my routine includes: waking up, drinking a glass of warm lemon water, shower, brush teeth, meditate for 10 minutes, get dressed, and go to work. I hardly take any willpower because meditating has become a habit I stacked onto my already set pattern. I rarely miss a day of meditation, and have reaped the benefits.

Meditation actually changes the structures of your brain. 

It increases cortical thickness in the hippocampus, (memory part of brain) improving your self-awareness and focus. It physically decreases brain cell volume in the amygdala, (fight or flight part of brain) that subsequently decreases anxiety, depression, chronic pain and offers a coping mechanism for traumatic events. Meditation can lower your blood pressure and help decrease cravings of addiction. With daily meditation- even if just for a few minutes- you’ll become more patient with your spouse, children and those around you. You’ll sleep better. You’ll get rid of facial wrinkles and enhance your sex life. Meditation helps you learn to be present and more comfortable with just sitting still. There’s just one catch, you have to actually meditate for it to work, and by habit stacking you can easily add meditation to become a mindful runner.

we run the states

I hope you enjoy adding running specific cross training to become the most badass version of yourself! If you’re interested in more strategies for forming healthy habits and breaking bad habits, I highly recommend Atomic Habits, by James Clear.

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