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The Science of Cross Training To Build Trail-Running Fitness

0 8 months ago

Coach Stefanie Flippin dives into the evidence behind cross-training, and when it can be helpful, and when you should just run.

We tend to think of cross-training as the ugly stepchild to our preferred sport or what runners are forced to succumb to when injured. But as the winter months approach and many look to bring their volume and potential intensity down through the holidays, is it possible to utilize cross-training to gain fitness and improve running economy?

We are fresh off the NCAA Cross Country Championships, held in Charlottesville, Virginia, where female champion Parker Valby (University of Florida), sent waves at the pre-race press conference by disclosing that she ran a maximum of two to three days per week this fall, supplementing the remainder of her days with a lot of elliptical and cross-training sessions. Valby sustained calcaneal and cuboid stress fractures in early 2022 and has been vocal about wanting to avoid running-related injuries moving forward. She confirmed that she participated in workouts and “occasional” long runs. This is a unique training model for a Division I athlete of her caliber but could provide insight into the evolving approach to high-level run training while minimizing injury and maximizing longevity in the sport.

To get better at something, you often need to do more of the activity consistently. This includes maintaining base fitness between training cycles, a critical component in lessening the risk of running-related injuries during race season. If you are coming off a hefty fall season of racing feeling incredible or feeling slightly burned out, healthy or nursing some lingering twinges, a masters athlete aiming to take a preventative approach to running-related injuries, or simply looking to diversify your training without adding more high-impact stress on the body, implementing cross-training into your routine could be of huge benefit. But what types of cross-training are most ideal to build running-specific fitness? Let’s dive into the modalities that best mimic running movement patterns and maximize running economy gains and how to implement them into a training plan.

The Science Of Cross-Training For Running PerformanceCross-training for trail running

study from 2018 assessed the effects that different cross-training modalities have on running performance and injury risks. The researchers compared movement quality, running economy and performance, injury-related biomechanical variables, and hip muscle strength before and after training with different cross-training modalities in high school runners. In the study, runners replaced two days of easy running per week with four-week cross-training sessions. The runners were separated into three groups: cycling, indoor elliptical, and outdoor elliptical bike (the equivalent of an Elliptigo bike). The study found that elliptical bike training improved functional movement screen scores and running economy before and after training and was the only modality to improve these. All groups demonstrated improvements in 3,000-meter performances, but large effects were only found in the cycle and elliptical bike groups.

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