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Running Tips Part 4: Cross Training and Tapering

Posted Feb 10 2011 8:07am

Morning All!

Today I’ve got the fourth of five running series posts for you. If you missed the previous ones, check em out below:

I’ve received some great questions lately about cross training, and I’ll try to cover them all in this post. If I miss anything out, feel free to shoot me an email and let me know.

Why bother with cross training at all?

There are lots of good reasons for incorporating cross training (meaning doing some sort of activity other than running) into your half marathon/full marathon training plans. First, it can help to correct muscle imbalances and prevent injury. If you’re following a training plan similar to the one I posted here , the distance that you run increases by about 10% each week. This can be really challenging for your body, especially the joints that absorb shock (how ya doin’, knees?) Cross training helps to develop muscles that support your running, and prevents overuse of the ones that are most involved.



Injury prevention is a pretty big deal, but there’s more. Cross training can help you to maintain your aerobic endurance. By adding in a cross training workout or two, you can still have a cardio session that’s as intense as you want it to be, but is low impact at the same time. There are a ton of activities you can do, and all that variety decreases the likelihood that you’ll sick of running, ignore your training plan, and burn out. All three of those things are baaaad, so let’s talk about what you can do to prevent them.

What sort of cross training is best?

Ideally, you want to do the activities that aren’t going to continue putting massive stress on the connective tissue near the knees and ankle joints. These get enough of a workout when you run, so I’d recommend choosing lower impact options, like the following….

1. Cycling: I’m not just saying this because I’m a spin instructor – this really is a good cross training activity! Whether you’re just riding a stationary bike or road bike on your own, or participating in a spin class, cycling is great because it helps to develop leg strength. Check out this lovely picture:


Here we have the muscles worked when pedaling. The quadriceps are a bigger muscle group than the hamstrings, and they tend to develop faster. Running targets the quads much more than the hamstrings, and the quads are also dominant when cycling. However, the part of the pedal stroke where you pull upward does help to develop the hamstrings -especially if you wear cycling shoes that have your foot securely clipped into the pedals – and therefore, can help to minimize the imbalance between the two muscle groups.

2. Swimming: The beauty of swimming is that it is a zero-impact workout. This makes it great for injured runners as well as runners looking to cross train and reduce the impact placed on their joints. Low impact doesn’t mean low intensity though – pool workouts can be mean! Swimming helps to develop and maintain cardiovascular endurance, strength (since you’re pushing/pulling against the resistance of the water), and flexibility (because the buoyancy of the water helps to improve the range of motion of your joints).


Oh – and don’t just assume that because you can run for hours that swimming will be easy. I decided to do a pool workout one day as part of my marathon cross training and after about 6 laps I was winded! Even if you’re not training for a race, swimming is a great way to challenge your body in different planes of motion.

3. Aqua Jogging/Running: This is another great option for cross training and injured runners. Again, the deep water provides a low-impact environment and the resistance of the water as you stride through it helps to develop strength. Just like land running, you can incorporate timed aqua running intervals in order to get your heart rate pumping.

4. Elliptical (or elliptical-like cardio equipment): This includes any machine that has your feet moving in an ellipse-like path. Most that I’ve seen have handles that move so your upper body is in motion while your legs follow the motion of the foot plates, and some of my favourites, like the one below from Precor have a crossramp that allows you to develop strength by working on an incline.

You’ve got a lot of options with the elliptical – you can work with a high crossramp to simulate a hill, go hands-free to get a core workout, move your legs forward or backward (backward works the glutes more), do intervals……. if you like variety, this one is  a good choice!

5. Strength Training: This is a bit of a controversial one – some plans say do it and some say don’t. Strength training is beneficial in your off-season because it can help to develop muscles that are weaker and don’t develop as fast when running (for example, the hamstrings, upper body and core strength). If you choose to do it as a method of cross training, I’d recommend focusing on muscular endurance rather than building muscular strength – meaning that you’d be doing more reps with lighter weights, rather than a few reps with really heavy ones. Don’t lift till you’re too sore to work hard on your training runs!


6. Yoga/Pilates/Stretching: Although these activities might not give you the best cardiovascular workout, they’re excellent ways to supplement your training runs and loosen tight joints. Just be careful not to stretch too far – you don’t want to overextend anything! Ease into stretches and listen to your body


Tapering Tips

I also promised some tips on tapering in this post, and while I certainly don’t consider myself an expert on the subject, I strongly recommend incorporating this into your training plan! Tapering allows your body and all of its systems to recover so that they can be on top form on race day. After putting in weeks of hard training, you wouldn’t want to derail progress by continuing to strain your bod, right? Right. So even if you feel like you’re not ready for the race and need to squeeze in some more hard running, don’t ignore the taper phase of your plan! A few quick tips:

  • DO reduce your mileage. How much depends on the length of your race, but I was once told that about 50% was appropriate, so that’s what I’ve done in the past.
  • DO set out a time frame for your taper. For all of my races, I tapered for 1 week. However, it’s up to you – I’ve seen plans for marathons that recommend a taper period of 2 weeks.
  • DO keep moving – while your mileage will decrease, it doesn’t mean you should stop running all together. Running and cross training are still ok, but remember that the goal is to let your body recover, not to try to be a hero and finish your hardest interval workout yet.
  • DO listen to your body – give it some extra stretching, sleep, massage… whatever you need to do to be as rested as possible.
  • DON’T cut out days of training  – just make your workouts shorter. Going days without getting your legs in motion could cause you to feel slow on race day.
  • DON’T start making last-minute changes in your running gear, nutrition, etc. Stick with what’s been working for you throughout your training plan.
  • DON’T risk your ability to race well by doing activities that could put you in pain (lifting heavy weights, for example).
  • DON’T stop fueling your body. Remember, muscles need protein to repair themselves and you will need carbohydrates for energy on race day. Drink plenty of water too!

Whew! That was a long post! Like I said, I can only speak from personal experience and I might have left a few things out, but that’s where you come in! Today, I want to know….

  • What’s your best cross training and tapering advice?
  • If you’re an experienced marathon or half marathon runner, how early do you start your taper phase?
  • What’s your favourite cross training activity?

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