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Do I Still Need to Cross Train When I'm Marathon Training? Learn from the Elites

See, marathoner,….I think you already know the answer to this one.

Especially because it's 2022 and cross training has been trending since the 1950's…buuuut what it looks like has changed over the decades.

And as more and more running research comes out about the benefits of cross training, the literature is realizing there's a massive gap.


We're winging (some) things when it comes to cross training and long distance running.

A lot of the "tried-and-true" training methods may in fact be GOLD! But…we don't have the scientific evidence behind:

  • why they work

  • if they truly work

  • and how they work.

We just know that in most cases, they do.

Which leaves us at an awkward scientific cross roads of: "well, we just do it this way because it's how we've always done it and seems to work and the science at least half supports us…and we can't just STOP running or training and put everything on hold until science finds all the answers..."

Yeaa…science can enter this weird gray area sometimes.


But it's not all bad here, in the between.


Because it gives us this wiggle room to challenge the old, traditional way of thinking and maybe support it with scientific evidence or maybe find out it's time to defenestrate it (that's one of my favorite words: go look it up. You'll be amused).


(If you want to jump to the good stuff: Check out my FREE running guide here to learn more about cross training for runners!)


That's where this week's research article comes in.


The over-arching purpose of the paper is:

"to integrate scientific and results-proven practice (meaning old timie thoughts and elite runner's training logs) literature regarding the training and development of elite long distance runner's performance. Within this context, we will particularly explore areas where the scientific literature offers limited information compared to results-proven training information."

Where does cross training fit into this?

Well, cross training has been a part of this grey area in the running literature when it comes to training the long distance runner (aka the marathoner).

The article gives us a working definition of cross training within the above context:

"Several successful (professional) long-distance runners have supplemented their sport-specific training with alternative locomotion modalities, so-called cross-training, including swimming, biking, cross-country skiing, and workouts on elliptical machines."

And even gives a reason for it:

"Arguments supporting the inclusion of cross-training include injury prevention and avoidance of training monotony."

Ok, cool, cool. So far, nothing real crazy.


However we're left with this conundrum of:

"We are also aware that many unsuccessful athletes have applied the same “recipe” as successful runners. Hence, we particularly focus on common key features across varying athlete groups."

Yeaaaaa…I agree with the predicament of this research paper.


Just because you cross train in one of the forms mentioned above, doesn't mean you're guaranteed an injury-free training cycle. I mean, you could!


But as far the literature goes, we can't say with confidence in the evidence that cross training in one of those methods is going to save you.

See the gray starting to appear? It might help; it might not.

So what gives?? Why don’t we have a solid answer? It's not like with marathon training you have loads of extra time on your hands.

Maybe this quote from the paper will help:

"Our understanding of best-practice long distance running continues to evolve, and it is fair to say that positive developments in modern long-distance training methods have often been driven by experienced coaches and athletes rather than sports scientists. Sport scientists have historically found themselves testing hypotheses regarding why elite athletes train as they do rather than driving innovation around the how in the training process."

See the connection?


Long distance runners (marathoners) have been heavily influenced from a coaching tradition that these different methods of cross training such as biking, swimming, cross-country skiing, and elliptical workouts are the solution to staying injury free.


And since it kinda works for some, it sticks. It becomes part of general runner lore.

What the research team is admitting here, is that it's time for the sports scientist with access to the testing and exploration of evidence step up to the plate and drive innovation surrounding best practice and evidence based training methods for marathoners like YOU!

Which brings us back to:

"we still contend that integrating scientific evidence and results-proven practice (general running lore) is a strong point of departure for outlining state-of-the-art training recommendations and for generation of new hypotheses to be tested in future research."

Because we have to start somewhere, right?


We have decades and decades of data from elite long distance runners; there's gotta be common trends amongst the data that give us a starting point. And that same concept applies to cross training for you, marathoner.

You might be familiar with this short story from the research article:

"Bill Bowerman, co-founder of Nike and US coach at the 1972 Olympics in Munich where Frank Shorter won the marathon, summarized his training philosophy as follows: 2–3 weekly interval sessions, a weekly long run, and fill the rest with as much LIT (low intensity training: think long easy runs) as you can handle.

This simple training description holds true for the training organization of most successful long-distance runners during the last 5 decades…[with] the training organization for marathoners…most often centered around their weekly “long runs.” "

Can you start to see the potential frame work of best-practice training for long distance runners, like yourself?


This research article IS NOT saying "Oh this is it! This is how it must be done!"


It's noting a potential place to start that has (some) clear, applicable structure that you could apply on your own tomorrow if you really wanted it.

This is in contrast to:

"Less specific training forms such as strength, power and plyometric training in small doses (relative to running training dosage) [which] are commonly applied by world leading long-distance runners. Even though these training forms do not duplicate the holistic running movement, they likely target specific neuromuscular qualities that underlie running economy.

A review of the results-proven practice shows that such supplementary training is typically implemented as a combination of :

  • Resistance training using free weights or apparatus (squats, cleans, lunges, step ups, leg press, etc.) without causing noteworthy hypertrophy

  • Circuit training with body mass resistance

  • Core strength/stability (e.g., sit-ups and back exercises)

  • Plyometrics in the form of vertical and/ or horizontal multi-jumps on grass, inclines, stairs, hills (e.g., bounding, skipping, squat jumps) or jumping over hurdles."


You've probably heard of most of those exercises above, right?

Nothing wild!

However, can you start to see how it's more vague compared to Bill Bowerman's rule of thumb?

Go do some squats.

And some core.

And throw in some plyos for good measure.

What??

That's NOT how champions train!

They have a training plan; they track the numbers; they progress the weight…

Exactly.

The question becomes: well, what is the plan then? What trends can be gathered from elite marathoners and their cross training?

The answer is….gray:

"Overall, this supplementary training (mentioned above) is poorly described in terms of resistance loading, sets and repetitions, and caution must therefore be made when drawing conclusions."

But it's not hopeless without direction:

"However, it appears that more strength, power and plyometric training are implemented during early-to-mid preparation (about twice a week) [usually the first half, the building phase, of your marathon training] compared to the competition period end (typically zero or one weekly session) [usually second half, the beginning to taper and actual taper of your training plan].

Several studies have shown that strength, power and plyometric training 2–3 times per week can improve running economy in long-distance runners.

Paula Radclife improved her vertical jump performance from 29 to 38 cm between 1996 and 2003, a period where she improved her running economy and marathon performance considerably."

We are firmly at those grey cross-roads.

The research paper has said:

  • strength, power, and plyometric training can help with running economy with marathoners

  • It has not stated that this will keep you injury free. (However, this conclusion can be drawn from the general body of running science.)

  • It also does NOT support general running lore that biking, swimming, ellipticals, etc will keep you injury free.

  • But it does acknowledge the fact that we don't have firm sets/reps data on various strength, power, etc training.

  • But it does recognize we DO have a recommended number of times per week in which these cross training methods should be performed.


So do you still need to cross train during your marathon training?

Based on the evidence we DO have from scientific research and individual case studies of various elite marathoners, the answer is "YES, BUT…"

WHY?

Because the science tells us all the different strength exercises and varieties mentioned above are extremely beneficial to runners…but we don't have exact numbers to recommend.

So as your runner-physical therapist, I'm here to say, "Take advantage of that, marathoner."

Yup.

Do the strength training that's best for YOU.


Love free-weights in your home gym?

Do it!

Love the cross fit community in your local box?

Crush it!

But don't also forget this other way to cross train.


(This is how biking and swimming and elliptical workouts got snuck in, in the first place.)

I'm here to say, only do those if you enjoy them.

If you don't: ditch 'em.

As a physical therapist, the runners that get injured and need my help are more likely to be the runners that …only run, that do NOT participate in other sports or activities.

So cross train with abandon, marathoner!

If you love swimming, then do it, and enjoy it and don't feel guilty about it. It'll only help your running.

If you love your winter snow-shoeing or skiing or luge-ing, then enjoy every minute of it!

There's evidence out there supporting the fact that multi-sport athletes perform the best and are even more likely to reach the level of professional athlete.

While, that might not be your goal, borrow a page from their book anyway.

And take advantage of the grey area.

Because this multi-sport fact wasn't present in the data of this research article, but we shouldn't ignore it.

And we shouldn't ignore cross training, even in marathon-training season.


And while this new take on cross-training can be challenging, difficulty, even uncomfortable, take it as a permission slip to try something new; to move your body in a new way and explore new sports, strengthening and teaching your body in new ways that will only make you a better marathoner, and maybe, even unlock your best PR yet.

Cross Train and Dare to Train Differently.

Until next time,

Dr. Marie Whitt //@dr.whitt.fit

P.S. looking for more examples on this new-fangled way to cross train? Then check out my running guide where I break down what cross training does for runners and why we need different movement, because that's why cross training is really about!




 

Reference:

Haugen, T., Sandbakk, Ø., Seiler, S., & Tønnessen, E. (2022). The Training Characteristics of World-Class Distance Runners: An Integration of Scientific Literature and Results-Proven Practice. Sports Medicine - Open, 8(1). doi: 10.1186/s40798-022-00438-7

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