Myths: cross-training is beneficial for running and chronic injury

Myths: cross-training is beneficial for running and chronic injury

When I was reading the last edition of “Running Times“, one of the most serious running publications out there with a host of contributors with an appreciable understanding of running as a sport, rather than a side-show, a few things stuck out to me in the otherwise excellent article “Decoding the signals” by Linda Flanagan. The article provides an extremely useful set of guidelines to help runners differentiate between “good” and “bad” pain signals before unfortunately dispensing one piece of advice that would be more safely ignored: “if coming back from an injury, start with cross-training”. I have always been a sceptic when it comes to cross-training, originally because it violates the principle of specificity which is held in high esteem among athletics coaches and because I saw no evidence of it being used by the very best runners in the world – Ethiopians and Kenyans. But it was only after getting a rudimentary understanding of Tony Riddle’s coaching method that I could begin to build a true case against it.

Cross-training today has come to mean non-impact exercises such as cycling, swimming, elliptical training, weight training or aqua-running, anything but running. A runner with a broken leg or a torn Achilles cannot run, of course, but his focus should be on rehabilitation through restoring first normal function in the damaged area and then practicing the elements of running movement and other natural movements. But what about all those presumably effective modes of cross-training such as cycling that have been offered up as solution for injured runners in recent years (although not in Kenya seemingly).

Surely cycling is a cure?

One of my greatest questions before I met Tony Riddle, our technical director for injury free running, was whether there was any truth to the claim that cycling was a useful part of rehabilitation for running. My instincts had always told me “no”, but I knew this was tainted by a dislike for the activity I held despite having cycled most of my life in Denmark. This view was mainly informed by the fact that almost none of the world’s top runners employed cycling as part of their regime and neither did the great Western champions of the 50s-70s. So why should we?

After meeting Tony, I can say with much greater confidence that I do not believe cycling can truly contribute to the rehabilitation from running injury. It takes the pounding away and provides respite from any current “misuse” (the same way sitting around would just with some cardiac benefits to go with it) but it does nothing to prepare you to become an injury free runner again. The running is not the problem to begin with: poorly executed running is. So we ignore the root cause, do something else and come back hoping things will be better. A fruitless quest.

As Tony Riddle provocatively put it in answer to a question that arose during one of our workshops: “who’d win a race between a guy able to bike for 4 hours and one able to run for 4 hours injury free.” It was a loaded question showing our view-point: if you want to learn to run injury free then spend time on activity relevant to running, which is primarily running, not on movement patterns that have absolutely nothing to do with running.

Seated training for upright exercise

When the majority of running injuries can be traced back to poor posture resulting from a sedentary and unnatural modern lifestyle, it is entirely inappropriate to suggest more seated activity. It is similar to runners, or any athlete for that matter, doing seated strength exercises. Tony points this out in almost every workshop we have: “Why exactly do you wish to become stronger at being seated?” In a wheelchair race or rowing perhaps it makes sense but running? Martial arts? Boxing? Field athletics? Resorting to such “fixes” is a result of a modern mindset which we must begin to shed, as coaches and athletes, to truly move forwards again in the battle against chronic injury.

The wild goose chase of cross-training can perhaps be traced back to the obsession with cardiovascular fitness which again comes from the predominance of physiologists over other specialists in endurance sports. But fitness is not just limited to the cardiovascular element and we know that “movement fitness” is specific. A strong heart does provide certain general benefits but throw a runner into a swimming pool or a rower into a running race and you see the limitations of this model. A strong heart is essential through all sports, part of attaining the “tireless state”, Lydiard spoke off but the key to performance is executing the specific movements of the sport correctly and as much as possible or, as in the case of drills, at least the correct components of the movement. Cyclists should therefore not practice running and runners not cycling unless they: a) enjoy it, b) use it as a means of alternative transportation or c) compete in multi-sport events.

The curious case of triathletes

“But triathletes have less issues with injuries,” is a common retort I have often had thrown at me. This is also a myth, triathletes are regularly injured and one 2003 study showed that 50% of triathletes were injured during their 6-month “pre-season” period and 37% during a 10-week competitive season. Overuse (which, in our minds, is rather “misuse”) accounted for the vast majority of these injuries and the longer people had been active in the sport, the more prone to injury they were. It also makes sense: instead of doing just one movement wrong (like runners), triathletes have the unenviable position of being able to do three wrong. Thankfully, coaches and practitioners of swimming have a more astute appreciation of the need for technical training and while biking is unrelated to running it does minimize the risk of impact-related injuries. Biking can also be executed better or worse as Tony demonstrated when showcasing how Lance Armstrong had set his bike up to maximise his use of the natural laws.

It is certainly better to be a triathlete and spend 10-25 hours (or more) swimming, cycling and running than sitting on the couch. But if you had 25 hours to spare, and running is your focus, you would be better off spending as many hours as possible running, and the rest on natural movements and drills directly specific to the movements involved in running. The seated posture in cycling compromises running and the pedals perpetuate a pushing action (even with clip-ons) that would be detrimental if transferred into running. It also overdevelops and over-activates muscles such as the calves and quadriceps which again will make it more difficult to attain a perfect running stride.

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Director and coach at Borg Coaching Services
Rene Borg is the head coach of Glendalough AC and a passionate runner competing over all distances and terrains.

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