A case for multi-sport training

For many reasons – ease, efficiency, enjoyment – we runners are  inclined to run and only run, opting against the myriad of other exercise programs. No other activity quite compares to the feeling of hitting a rhythmic stride mid-run or relishing a jubilant post-workout runner’s high. I myself have subscribed to the run-only routine for most of my adult life. Though I might mix it up a bit depending on the season, my go-to 6 days a week has consistently been running.

Many seasoned coaches and athletes have spoken of the importance of cross-training and purposeful time away from running. Rationally I always understood this concept, but I rarely sensed sincerity behind the words. To me, it seemed most people felt obliged to encourage cross-training all the while knowing that nothing develops running fitness better than more running. In my view, cross-training inevitably remained confined to the injured-runner’s routine; it wasn’t something a healthy runner devoted much time to.

And yet, I am making an earnest plug for embracing a multi-sport training routine. As with so many things in life, I had to arrive at this understanding through personal experience. Five months ago, I sustained a significant overuse running injury, side-lining me not only from marathon training but also from all physical activity for eight weeks. The shock of this – my first serious running-related injury – was a huge wake-up call. Here was tangible evidence I had pushed my body past its limits and undeniably run too much. At the height of this training cycle, I was running high mileage and sticking to the road as much as possible. Strength work, cross-training sessions, and even trail running grew less and less frequent. At one point I remember finishing a routine 10-mile run, euphoric as always, but aware that my body didn’t feel strong; I felt primed to run fast for long distances, but weak overall. Weeks later, my injury revealed just how weak I was – fit and fast, but frail. I finally understood how running everyday can make you fit but in a very limited and specific way.

Enter center stage: the multi-sport cross-training approach. Since returning to activity post-injury, I have made a point to establish a dedicated strength routine and to mix up my aerobic training. My first month back to exercise was spent gradually re-introducing my body to cross country skiing, spinning, and strength sessions. Cross country skiing is a great low-impact, endurance workout alternative to running and strengthens the stabilizing muscles we long distance road runners so often neglect. Plus, it’s a fun way to get outside and moving in the snow! As for spinning and strength, neither are activities I particularly enjoy, but I can now appreciate their value in developing more complete fitness.

In the following weeks I began running again. As I added in a run of 3-6 miles two or three days a week, I continued cross-training and doing strength. In these first few weeks back to running, completing the rolling six mile loop I had once considered a short easy day was now a significant effort. Most runs felt like a grind, no matter how easy I went. I stuck to my new routine of skiing, running, and strengthening, still genuinely thrilled to simply be back moving. And then on a bright & sunny first day of spring, I ran 8 miles and felt fantastic. Despite running only an average of three days a week for the past six weeks, I felt like my running legs and fitness were coming back

Now, as I gradually increase my mileage and continue skiing as much as winter allows, I can feel myself growing stronger in a full-body, holistic way. Through a more varied routine, I am consistently reminded that working broad muscle groups and changing up the targeted aerobic stimulus has many rewards. I don’t feel like I’ve sacrificed significant running speed or mobility. The minimal running-specific fitness I might be missing out on is a balance worth finding for the sake of injury prevention and running longevity.

The takeaway: If you want to enjoy running throughout your life, I highly encourage you to get creative and prioritize cross-training. Find cross-training activities you enjoy, or can at the very least tolerate. Embrace variability and attaining a more holistic, rounded fitness. When you’re itching to skip the cross-training session and just go for a run instead, remind yourself that consistency is the key to lifelong enjoyment of sport, and varied training is essential to maintain such consistency. Hold the long-term vision close when your short-term mindset nudges you to click off more miles. Make it intentional, not out of necessity by injury. I fully believe you will feel your best and run your fastest times off of a multi-sport training approach.

Heidi testing out the ski legs in one of the Center’s weekly Tuesday Night Races!

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