Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
When most runners think of cross-training (otherwise known as xtraining) what probably comes to mind are low to no-impact activities like biking, swimming, aqua jogging, and elliptical. Usually, these activities are viewed with a sort of disdain as they are often what runners do when they can’t run due to injury, injury prevention, illness, poor weather, and most recently unhealthy air quality. Xtraining is about as close as you can get to finding a poster child for second choices. Runners also seem to associate xtraining with weakness. If you are able-bodied, shouldn’t you be running all the time? After all, you call yourself a “runner” not a “xtrainer”.
Even amongst many professional runners, xtraining is reserved as a nice backup plan when running is inaccessible. There are a few exceptions of runners who might have xtraining built into their weekly training plans but even then it seems you can likely trace this back to injury prevention measures. Many athletes discover through various injury cycles that they are particularly injury-prone at higher mileages and thus supplement their running with plenty of xtraining to get them where they want to go while mitigating risks. It should be noted that there is nothing wrong with this approach, it is a very healthy and proven way to approach training for success.
There are several well-known stories of xtraining that led some athletes to some of the biggest successes of their careers. Famously, Shalane Flanagan had to withdraw from the 2017 Boston Marathon due to an iliac stress fracture forcing her to xtrain for several weeks. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise as later that fall, Flanagan went on to win the New York Marathon, the first American to do so in 40 years, and arguably the best race of her career. Similarly, American Record Holder Deena Kastor was forced into several weeks of xtraining in early 2005 due to an injury which a few months later saw her win the Chicago Marathon; the first World Major Marathon win of her career. Given the successes of these road running goddesses, we could all benefit from taking a page out of their book.
While these are road running success stories, the benefits of xtraining as applied to trail and mountain running are just as great if not greater. Coach David Roche of Some Work, All Play (SWAP) explains why xtraining can be more than just good for your physical health, it can be an adventure which is arguably more valuable to you as an athlete. Roche explains “The more I coach, the more I see the benefits of incorporating cross-training. Weekly running mileage matters only as a proxy for growth, rather than as the driver of growth. Adventure flex days introduce physical stress while providing a mental release, possibly adding up to a greater adaptation stimulus than a few more miles ever could.”
Can training be something we can embrace not just as a second-fiddle to running, but something in and of itself that can help us get stronger and have more fun?
From top-tier professional athletes to the weekend warriors alike, we are all feeling a lack of motivation and direction this year. Many are struggling to find meaning and readjust their “why’s” in the face of the adversity that is 2020. But xtraining is here to help! If you find yourself feeling this way you might look to try one, or several, new xtraining varieties to help boost your spirits and add some adventure.
There seems to be a rising trend in gravel biking amongst the professional trail and mountain running athletes which is a testament to both the benefits of xtraining as well as the need to find motivation and new adventures in the face of such a tough year. Hayden Hawks, an accomplished professional ultrarunner and a veteran for Team USA, is one of many that have hopped onto the gravel biking bandwagon this year. For Hayden, gravel biking is one of the best ways to explore and experience an area because of how much ground you can cover as compared to running. Additionally, it has helped him to maintain the strength, fitness, and training volume needed to be one of the top ultra-runners in the world without the beating that pure running miles might have on the body. For Hayden, the xtraining also provides a new mental stimulus that we can all use from time to time, especially if you feel your motivation waning in a year like 2020.
While gravel biking has been experiencing a big uptick in conversions of trail runners this summer, swimming has also been a popular xtraining choice for those looking to mix things up and add adventure and freshness to their training. Amelia Boone, a professional obstacle course racer champion and endurance athlete, takes full advantage of swimming in her training plans: “While swimming isn’t specific to running, I’ve found it’s a great addition to my training to help stay fresh and loose. It helps lengthen tight hip flexors and the water is a sort of compression therapy that helps with soreness and fatigue. I don’t swim hard, but embrace it as a recovery tool to keep me fresh!”
In a year that doesn’t seem to have much to look forward to, there’s no better time to learn and embrace a new skill and diversify your athletic toolkit. If you’ve been feeling low on motivation and inspiration lately, you might want to consider adding xtraining to your training plan as a way to further empower your inner-athlete and keep the love of life and adventures alive.
Grayson Murphy is a professional runner for Saucony, a part-time engineer, and loves just about anything that involves playing outside.