The most common solution you'll hear for new runners to get faster is to run more (or harder) speed workouts. This strategy will only partially work, and it is not a long-term solution to breaking through a performance plateau. Image by karpenko_ilia (Shutterstock).
I've talked to a lot of runners who have less than a year of experience in the sport. Their main goal is to get faster over 5k or 10k and break a performance plateau. All admirable goals! Typically, their training is in the 25-40km per week range, which is a good starting point for a new runner, and they're doing one speed workout (or none) per week.
The biggest handicap new runners have is a small aerobic base — also called running endurance or stamina. Aggressively increasing mileage can be a sure path to injury for new runners (especially if they aren't doing enough core work).
So how do you improve running endurance without increasing injury risk? Simple: Alternative aerobic exercise. Because I want to focus on building a solid aerobic foundation, I'm going to concentrate on alternative aerobic exercises to running, not lifting or strength workouts.
How I Improved My Endurance with Cross-Training
Twice in my running career I've used supplemental forms of exercise to drastically improve my level of fitness. The first was before my final year of university as I was preparing for my last cross country season. For two months, I spent over three hours every week cycling and pool running (in addition to running 129km per week).
I came back to campus and won the last 3k of our team time trial (we did 2x3k). My fitness had reached an entirely new level and I was running with much more talented runners. My coach figured that my cross-training was the equivalent of an extra 24km per week — so I was doing the same amount of work as somebody running almost 161km per week, without the added injury risk.
I narrowly missed being All-ECAC (East Coast Athletic Conference) by less than one second and improved my 8k personal best by 59 seconds.
After I graduated university, I transitioned to three months of triathlon training to prepare for a few sprint triathlons. While my weekly mileage was cut by nearly half, I was swimming and cycling for four to five hours per week.
After I resumed running, I debuted at the 10k cross country distance and ran 33:41 (much faster than I thought I could run) and ran a personal best in the 1.6km with a 4:33.
The power of triathlon training is incredible and can undoubtedly increase your fitness levels.
The Benefits of Cross-Training
I saw huge gains in fitness with only a few targeted months of consistent cross-training — and so can you. During these intense training cycles, I didn't even feel fatigued or burned out. Mentally, I was excited for every day of training because by mixing in various forms of exercise you keep things fresh.
I wasn't getting bored by only running every day either. The cycling, swimming and pool running was a welcomed change to my normally structured routine of only running. Keeping your training fresh from a mental perspective will help you avoid staleness and losing motivation.
Physically, I got stronger than ever. I was doing more cardiovascular exercise than I had ever done with barely any extra injury risk. If you're injury-prone, this is exactly how you improve your personal bests.
The added benefits of all this zero-impact exercise is the strengthening it will do for muscle groups that normally don't get worked during running. Cycling and swimming in particular work very different muscles and increase overall athleticism.
Swimming is a second tier form of exercise for runners — it's just not specific enough. For the most improvement in your running, stick to exercises that closely mimic the motion of running. The best are:
- Pool running — Use an AquaJogger Belt to keep your form correct: High cadence, don't overextend your legs and keep a straight back. If you're experienced, you can skip the belt for a harder workout.
- Cycling — Road biking is preferable, but mountain biking will also help. Use clip-in shoes if you can and try to keep your cadence above 90 rotations per minute.
- Elliptical machine — Effective, but not very fun. Keep your cadence high to mimic running.
- Swimming — Learn proper technique, don't drown and do faster workouts for an extra aerobic boost.
While most of these forms of exercise are fairly specific to running, at some point you'll need to increase your running mileage to reach your true potential. To be a good runner, you have to run a lot. Supplemental aerobic cross-training can help bridge the gap, especially for injury-prone runners, but you can't plant potatoes and harvest carrots (I love that line!).
Timing your Cross-Training
Cross-training days should be used strategically to either promote recovery or get you ready for a hard effort (like a long run). It depends on your level of fitness and what type of race you're training for.
If you are a fairly new runner or are not used to long runs or running six to seven days per week, then it's wise to use a day of cross-training before your long run to get you ready to run long. The last thing you want is to be tired on the most important workout of the week.
You may also need a day of cross-training after the long run if you need extra recovery. Cross-training like cycling, swimming or pool running can boost your aerobic fitness while promoting blood flow to your legs. Since these types of exercises won't send any impact forces through your legs, you can still get in a good workout after a tiring effort on your long run day.
Ideally every runner would work up to the point of running six to seven days per week and use cross-training as a supplemental workout instead of a replacement workout (especially for marathoners). This isn't always practical, so my second choice for most runners is to use it before a long run. Being properly prepared for a long run and then running it well is vital for marathon training.
Here is my ranking for those who want a cheat sheet of the best ways to use cross-training around a long run:
- Run seven days per week and use cross-training like cycling or pool running as supplemental exercise to boost aerobic fitness and recovery.
- Run six days per week and cross train as your easy day, but not before or immediately after your long run.
- Run four to six days per week and cross train the day before your long run to rest and prepare your legs.
- Run four to six days per week and cross train the day after your long run to recover from the hard effort.
The reason that #4 is ranked last is because some research shows that slow running the day after a hard effort can help boost efficiency and fitness gains (even going REALLY slow!). I remember reading this study several months ago but unfortunately I can't find it now. If you have it handy please let me know!
Scheduling your long runs, workouts, easy days and cross-training can be a daunting task. I'm glad that for the first eight years of my running career I had great coaches who planned my training for me. All I had to do was show up and get it done!
Putting it Together: An Example Training Week
At Strength Running, I like to give you as much actionable coaching advice that you can use today to help your running. So here's how to implement this information in your running schedule.
Imagine you're a healthy runner. How would you plan your cross-training workouts? If you run five days per week with a weekly long run and faster workout, here's my suggestion:
In this example, Tuesday's pool run is an easy recovery session. Both time and intensity is low to help you recover from the workout in the morning. The same is true for Sunday's pool run — the goal of that workout is to help you recover from Saturday's long run instead of simply taking the day off.
Wednesday's cycling session can be longer and at a more moderate effort. Here the goal is to add volume to your weekly workload to increase your general endurance.
Now that you know how to put it all together, the next time you hear a runner say, "What's the point of cross-training?" you'll know what to tell them!
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