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Alternative Training for Runners: Our Essential Guide to Cross-Training. Part 1: Theory.

Alternative Training for Runners: Our Essential Guide to Cross-Training. Part 1: Theory.

Discover the best alternative training methods for runners. Enhance your performance without the risk of injury with these proven techniques.

Discover the best alternative training methods for runners. Enhance your performance without the risk of injury with these proven techniques.

Christophe Roosen

Christophe Roosen is the co-founder and coach of Trenara. Runs a marathon in 2:31:34.

What if you can't or don't want to just run? Can you replace your running workouts with alternative training methods? And how do these alternatives fit within my Trenara running plans?
This topic often comes up at our help desk: how can you train alternatively as a runner? It's time to share that knowledge with all of you. Which sports are 'ideal' and when or how should you incorporate them?

1. Why Do You Want to Train Alternatively?

Here’s an important initial question. Alternative training can stem from a necessity, such as due to an injury or reduced load capacity, or from a desire, such as cycling in the sunshine.

It’s relatively easy to give advice on this latter form of alternative training, where you simply want to combine another sport with running. Here, we don’t have to consider what injuries you have and thus which alternative sports are or aren’t possible. I mainly address this point along with reduced load capacity. I explain this reduced load capacity as follows: when you cannot increase your running hours because it might lead to injuries.

2. What Type of Running Workouts Can You Replace with Alternative Sports?

You can replace any type of workout with an alternative sport, especially if needed due to an injury. But in this scenario, we choose to want. We start by emphasizing why specific training is important. Only then can we make appropriate choices in alternative training forms.

2.1 The Importance of Specific Training

Specific training, or running workouts for runners, remains the norm. Broadly speaking, specific training has three important benefits, often interconnected:

a. Physiological

You train the right capacities and powers, the ones you need when running.
Cycling and swimming are often the ultimate alternative sports. Research has shown that the transfer from these two sports to running is limited when we focus on improving VO2max. Conversely, the benefits are there: running is a very efficient training form for cyclists/swimmers concerning VO2max.

Here it's important to differentiate between:

  • what is ideal vs. what is desired

  • amateurs vs. elite athletes

Let’s start with the latter. For elite athletes, alternative training is, in theory, less beneficial. Their (specific) condition is often so good that alternative training adds little. For us, normal people 😅, it's different. Our condition can be improved in many ways.

For elite athletes, although alternative training may not be ideal, it is still desirable. Running is too demanding to spend all your sports hours on it. By preventing injuries through alternative training, you ultimately save many running hours because you do not have to stop running because of an injury. When I prepared Mieke for the World Championships and European Championships marathon, we also trained alternatively. The cross-trainer and 'The Beast' (an airbike) were our go-to's.

b. Muscle Usage

It’s logical, but it's good to emphasize that running trains precisely the muscles you need. That's why specific training is so important. These 'running muscles' determine your performance when you aim for a sharp time.

c. Running Economy

Running economy is often overlooked. I will need to use some complex terms to clarify.
Running economy is essentially a translation of the oxygen cost required to perform your running motion. The more oxygen needed, the less efficient your movement, the lower your running economy, and also your performance. Your running style plays a crucial role, but it's not the only factor. Body length, length of Achilles tendons, temperature, etc., all play a role.

Few have an ideal running style. For instance, I have an overstride, a too-large stride, causing me to land in front of my center of gravity (COG). This requires extra muscle power to get over that COG, increasing my oxygen cost, and thus reduces my running economy. Through core stability, strength training, and running drills, you can work on this. Core and strength training cannot be separated from running. Hot take: don’t call yourself a keen runner if you don't support your body through core and strength training. The (mechanical) load of running is so big with every step you take that you need to protect your body against it.

The more you run, the better your running economy. For the same output, your oxygen cost will be lower. Even for those with a (very) poor running economy.
All this is independent of VO2max: with an unchanged VO2max, but improved running economy, your performance will improve. Also, consider mitochondrial density, the energy factories in your body.

And of course, I must mention the 'super shoes,' or the carbon shoes in this context. The famous '4%' from Nike wasn't about a performance improvement of 4%. It was about an average improvement in running economy: the oxygen cost was 4% less with Vaporfly vs. without. This results in a performance improvement of 1 to 2%, which is significant.

2.2 Functional Alternative Training

Considering the above, not all training forms are 'ideal' for alternative training for runners.

Recovery runs and endurance runs, including long slow distance (LSDs), are in my opinion the way to go. Recovery runs have the least added value as specific training of all running workouts. Long runs and LSDs occur often enough in the training plan to regularly swap them for another sport. Thus, when you swap out one of these forms of training weekly or regularly, you do not compromise the aforementioned criteria.

Therefore, in this context, I call it functional: the alternative training will indeed also contribute something, and the missed running session will not diminish your running condition.

To be clear, this does not mean that you cannot organize alternative training sessions to replace interval or tempo blocks. However, this should be considered on a case-by-case basis. For Mieke, I prescribed intervals on 'The Beast' when there was a mechanical limitation, always in consultation with Bram, her physiotherapist. VO2max training, though less efficient, can be done on the bike. Thanks to aqua jogging (not swimming!), you can maintain your running economy through an alternative form of training. Swimming, on the other hand, is an ideal power stimulus because the resistance of the water plays a significant role. However, if you want to train capacities, you need to rest more regularly when swimming compared to running.

I will discuss how to specifically fill in these trainings and how you can implement them in Trenara in the next blog. So, stay tuned for more insights on how to incorporate effective cross-training strategies into your routine, ensuring you stay fit, avoid injuries, and potentially improve your running performance by integrating these alternative approaches.

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