Monday, December 12, 2011

Benefits of Cross Training

This bout of Achilles tendonitis may have been one of the best things that ever happened to me. I've been cycling, running and fast-hiking, maintaining my usual volume as far as hours this time of year (about 10 hours a week). To protect my Achilles while it heals, I've been running the flats and downs and fast-walking the ascents. Both walking and cycling have been great ways to supplement my training, while minimizing damaging impact, during this injury.

Over the weekend I did two two-hour workouts, each with about 30 minutes of cycling, and the rest was running and fast-walking (about 3/4 running, 1/4 walking). I've found that walking engages the hips a lot more than running. Maybe that explains why I'm always sore after a long walk. I've also found that cycling is improving my leg turnover when I run. On Sunday I was effortlessly cruising along a flat section and looked down at my watch to find that I was going at 6:58 pace and not even working remotely hard. It was easy. Maybe it's the rapid pedaling motion while cycling that helps improve leg turnover in running. I do know that one of the keys to running big ascents like the ones we have in Colorado is quick turnover. So I really think there's something to cross-training, especially when I consider what Lee McKinley said in this recent pod cast interview, which is making the rounds.

Back East, I ran 100 miles a week training for big races and it worked well for me. Sure, you have hills back East, but the terrain isn't as demanding on the body as it is out here in Colorado, and so 100-mile weeks back East never messed me up much. If anything, triple-digit weeks made me super-strong. I also think the elevation here in Colorado puts a big strain on the body. When you're in a race like the Leadville 100, you need to be more than just a strong runner; you need to be a strong hiker and you need to have the strength to handle the big climbs and descents. This requires a lot of different muscles. Since moving out West, I've come to realize that my quads and hiking are major weaknesses, which might explain the decline in my race results over the past two years (it's obvious when looking at my results on Ultrasignup). My quads give out on me on long descents and I've never been a great uphill hiker. Hiking has just never felt natural to me. I'm now thinking that a cross-training regimen consisting of running, cycling and fast-walking, along with planks and other core work, will help create better balance in my hips and legs, more effectively preparing me for the challenge of Leadville. Along the lines of what Lee says in his interview, I'm floating a training formula for Leadville that would go something like this:

14-15 total hours a week of training
  • 11 hours running (~75-85 miles)
  • 1-2 hours cycling
  • 1-2 hours walking/hiking (instead of running my usual two-a-days, I would still run in the AM and then fast-walk at night)
"Recovery" weeks
  • 8 hours running (~60 miles)
  • 3-4 hours cycling
  • 2-3 hours walking/hiking
I think if you're a really strong hiker with good muscular balance in your legs, you're going to do well in mountain races. If you're not a good hiker and have imbalances in your legs, you're probably going to suffer. So, if that's the case, I can't help but think that a training plan for a 100-miler that focuses only on running and doesn't also include some walking and cycling is an incomplete plan.

If you have thoughts on this, post away!


  1. Hooray for hiking! I always tell people I'm a fast hiker, it sounds so much better than telling them I'm a slow runner.

    We have a hiking advantage in the Springs with the Incline. You should come try it sometime.

  2. I heard the Lee interview. And Lucho is always talking to me about the bike.

    Thing is I sort of don't like the cross training thing.

    But it works.

    I am probably more mentally tuned like Tony - and just want to run. But there are problems that come with that - particularly as I become an old fart.

  3. Brownie: I've been wanting to get to the Incline for a while. I'll do it soon--when my Achilles is better.

    GZ: I think Lucho is onto something. Yes, he's super-talented (I think a focused Lucho could flirt with 16 hours at Leadville), but I think there's something to the bike. But, like you, I see myself as a runner, and so it's hard to do anything else. You mentioned Anton. I think--and I could be wrong--that Anton wiil soon see the huge benefits of what he's doing with hiking. My guess is that he hasn't lost much, if any, fitness. Botton line: I've noticed in the last year or so that I don't recover like I used to. I'm now getting close to 40 and have to adjust...or else I'm going to run myself into the ground. I think Lucho's already figured that out with himself, which might explain his continued success. "Evolve or die," as they say.

  4. GZ: Also, I think I'm as obsessed about the LT100 as you are about the Pikes Peak Marathon. It's a shame they're on the same weekend, cause I could easily be just as obsessed about the PPM.


  5. I always mix in road/mountain biking in with my running. A few years ago I got a single speed and let me tell what a difference it makes on steep downhills. SS'ing is like doing leg presses until failure. When I run downhill, it feels effortless, no soreness or fatigue. I just laugh now at running steep downhills! -grae

  6. Anonymous: You've got my attention on effortless downhill running. I first realized I was a crappy downhill runner at the Barr Trail Mountain Race in 2010. I got up to Barr Camp pretty well, but then got passed a bunch on the way down. It was very discouraging. I also had some issues descending Hope Pass this year at the LT100 and also descending Hagerman Pass. Thanks for the insights!


  7. Plyometrics helps get up hills. It helped me with an 8-mile steep incline at least, nothing compared to what you do, but the principle probably holds true.

    By the way, I love your blog even though I've never even done a marathon. I do have a goal to run the 35-mile River Mountain Loop in
    Southern Nevada.

  8. No obsession with Pikes. That chick has dumped me and been too mean to me too many times for me to be in obsessed with her.

    I might be slightly focused on what I can do there.

  9. I am sure you have time constraints like a lot of us but if you want to be competetive at ultras you need to be running in the 20 hour per week range. Crosstraining takes away from that. It is a good substitute if you are injured but if you are healthy why would you waste precious time on a bike?

    If you go up and down enough mountains then everything becomes runnable.

  10. Anonymous: Thanks for your post! I couldn't disagree more. Yes, there are lots of great runners who put in 20+ a week. Kilian comes to mind. Anton also. Etc. I just don't have time for that--not with a full-time job, very busy wife, family, house, etc. At some point, I have to draw the line. Back East, I ran 15-16 hours a week and was placing well in ultras. Maybe you have to do more out West than you would back East in order to perfom well. I'm still trying to figure it all out. But one thing's for certain: I'd rather run 15 hours a week and have more time with my family than run 20 hours a week and never see them. Also, there are the occasional weeks when my training does get close to 20--like if I take a day off work and do a big mountain outing. But by and large I'm in the 13-15-hour range when peak training. Maybe that's not enough for what I expect from myself, but at some point I have to say enough's enough. Thanks again!


  11. I wrote---I am sure you have time constraints like a lot of us but if you want to be competetive at ultras you need to be running in the 20 hour per week range.

    You wrote--Anonymous: Thanks for your post! I couldn't disagree more.

    You then went on to say that you do not have time to train that much. What I said is a fact for 99 percent of top runners in this sport including for you. Do you consider yourself elite? What did you disagree about? I am confused?

  12. Anonymous: To elaborate, I disagreee that you HAVE to train for 20 hour a week to be competitive in ultras. What if one trains for 19 hours a week? Are you then not quite competitive? I don't think 20 hours a week is the magic number. I think it's all different for different runners. I believe I once read that Matt Carpenter averaged 2 hours a day when he was training for the 2005 LT100, where he set a new CR. Lucho averaged about 51 miles a week training for the 2010 LT100, where he finished 6th overall (granted, he was putting in lots of cross-training, too). Some runners might be able to be elite at 16 hours a week while others may need to run 20+ for elite performance. One thing's for certain: I do NOT consider myself elite. I have no aspirations to be elite since I don't have the natural talent or time to be.

    Why post as anonymous? Why not tell us who you really are?