Last night, I had what I considered the ultimate healthy weeknight: got out of work at an unprecedented 6:30pm, headed to Whole Foods to pick up the world’s largest salad, did a killer lifting workout at the hotel gym, and was in bed by 9pm (though I ended up getting totally caught up in finishing Divergent that I didn’t actually go to sleep until 10pm). If I could do this every night, I’d be in fantastic shape! But since this is (supposedly) a running blog, I often get questions about how the above can possibly be my preferred routine. Why is a marathon runner lifting? Shouldn’t a marathon runner be, y’know, running?
I have long extolled the virtues of crosstraining, but today, an awesome article appeared in the Boston Globe that backed me up. While few scientific studies have actually been done, the article offers that “alternating running with other workouts will cause less wear and tear on the body and help offset the boredom of a repetitive workout routine.” Yes, yes, and yes!
Even if you love running with all your heart, I think there’s a great something to be said for taking days off from pounding the pavement. If you keep your muscles doing the same thing all the time, they will get locked into that cadence and find it hard to adapt – this is why when you are doing a marathon, it’s a smart idea to lengthen your stride on the downhills (stretch those hip flexors!) and shorten your stride on the uphills (lift your knees!). In fact, I have long pointed out that when it comes to the marathon distance, most people tend to do better on a gently rolling course than they do on a pancake flat course.
Think of it like Chinese water torture: if you are running on a flat surface, you are going to be working the exact same fiber of the exact same leg muscle with each step. That’s a lot of stress on that piece of muscle! But if you can get some uphills or downhills in there (or even just mix up your stride), you’ll give that tired muscle a break and allow another muscle (okay, maybe not an entirely different muscle, but another part of that muscle) to take over. Uphills/downhills and changing your stride are what prevent you from getting that “marathon shuffle” that you’ll see on some people in the last few miles of the race – it occurs when your hips have tightened up from repeated movement and now you can’t stretch your legs into a more normal gait. (If you ever experience this, it’s far better to pull off to the side to take 30 seconds for a hip flexor stretch – you’ll easily make up the time with an improved stride after stretching).
Now let’s apply those same principles of mixing it up to training. Let’s say you are someone who needs five hours of exercise a week to stay in shape. If you do it all through running, you are essentially putting your body through a marathon every week – and are bound to get some injuries and soreness. But if you do a 90 minute long run, two 30 minute short runs, two 30 minute weight lifting sessions, and two 45 minute Zumba class, you’re still getting in that same five hours of working out, but you’re giving your leg muscles a break from the pounding. Plus, you’re also getting in some much-needed weight lifting that’s going to make your muscles stronger for your next run. Even Kara Goucher lifts weights a few times a week!
So when you’re planning a training schedule and trying to get faster, make sure you’re mixing it up. Try to avoid running every day and opt for every other day, then find something else to do on the other days. That strategy will give your muscles a break from the wear and tear you put on them while running (you did run hard, didn’t you?), and it can also give you a break from the monotony of going out and running the same routes every day. Even if you love your daily runs, waiting 48 hours will only heighten the excitement you feel when you finally get to stretch your legs – add that to the recovery time you’ve given your legs, and you will truly feel like you’re flying. And isn’t that we love about running?