Thursday, January 17, 2013

Cross Training for Ultra Runners and Trail Runners

I think most runners understand the importance of specificity training; that is training for the sport you hope to compete in. That said, if you stick to running 100% of the time you run (no pun intended) the risk of developing an injury stemming from not exercising the supporting muscles you need to run. So what types of activities will give you the most bang for your training dollar? Let's take a look at the muscles you use when you run and what cross training activities will support those muscles.

Hamstrings: The long muscles that run up the back of your legs. The supporting muscles are the quadriceps which are the big muscles on the front of your legs. Many long distance road runners develop the "runners shuffle" which depends heavily on the hamstrings and uses very little quad muscle. To employ the quads try the following activities after an easy run: high knee skips, if you haven't done these before start off by walking the high knees then work up to skipping. Stand with one leg straight (don't lock your knees) and bend the other leg up as far as your knee will go without straining the knee. Then drive the bent leg down and do the same on the opposite leg.Try and make the transition between legs as smooth and quick as possible. Do about 30 seconds of these to start, working up to a minute. The added bonus is this exercise also stretches the hamstrings a bit.
More specific quad muscles building exercises include cycling (or indoor spinning), weight press (try to do this one leg at a time, since you run with one leg hitting the ground at a time it doesn't make alot of sense to work both legs at the same time), one-legged squats (with or without weights) and stair climbing.

Calves: The muscles that run along the back of your lower legs. The supporting body part is your ankles. In my experience the calf muscles are very under trained muscles. My old running shoes' heel thickness left me with weak calves, and this is why I think alot of people give up on transitioning to minimalist running shoes, the calf pain when you go from a 15 mm heel drop to a 4 mm heel drop can be pretty darn significant and a major turn off. But, if a runner sticks with it, that is transitioning to more minimalist shoes over time, say using them for easy runs at first, then adding another run in every other week, they will find not only their calves but their ankles will become significantly stronger. When I ran my first trail Ultra last year I knew I would need more sole support than my VFFs so I switched over to a New Balance Trail shoe with a heel drop of more than 10 mm. While this shoe got me through my ultra pain free the following weeks of running were as if I had never made the transition to minimalist shoes. It took about 6 weeks for my calves to stop protesting every time I would wear minimalist shoes. SO, aside from transitioning to minimalist shoes, what can the average runner do to strengthen those muscles? Try calf raises after a easy run or speed workout. Keep the reps to 3 to start and work up from there. Some runners at the elite level do 100 of these after an easy run-I tend to do about 20-30. Stand at the edge of a stair and lower your heels so they are below your forefoot. Then using your forefoot lift your legs to a pointed foot, then lower again. Do this slowly for maximum benefits, I like to count to four as I raise and lower my legs. You can use weights once you feel these are easy. If you need to hold onto something do so with a light touch, you'll decrease the benefits if you are using your arm to haul you up.

Upper Arms: They help balance us as we run and studies have also shown that if you pump your arms as you run uphill it will help you achieve a faster leg turnover, helping you run faster. However if you are pumping your arms as you run on a flat surface you may be wasting energy. When running on a flat surface keep your arms bent at a 90 degree angle, with your wrists and shoulders loose. Try not to let your arms swing in front of your body, they should stay to your side with a slight swing, otherwise they are making you less aerodynamic. To help improve your upper arm running posture try standing in place with a light weight in each hand (or a soup can), then mimic the motion of swinging your arms as you raise and lower each leg. Try not to over extend your arms back as you might cause neck strain by carrying the weights. Do this exercise very slowly-imagine a slow motion clip in a movie-and do this for at least 30 seconds and build to a full minute.

Other activities that help build your overall running fitness: The following activities, depending on the season where you are, all are recommended by runners for runners. Please remember there is NO one-size fits all exercise for everyone:

  • Cross country skiing: works the legs, hips, IT band, heart, waist and arms.
  • Snowshoeing: works the IT band, legs, heart and waist.
  • Swimming: works the heart, upper body and hips.
  • Water jogging: works the heart, quads and biceps.
  • Cycling: works the legs (especially the quads) and heart.
  • Walking: works the legs, hips and heart.

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